Pretty Boy


nonfiction by Tanya Frank


I was in charge when I gave birth to Zach. I danced drug free around the delivery suite at Whipps Cross Hospital. The room was windowless, lit by naked fluorescent strips. I closed my eyes to the prominent large clock on the white wall, and the gleam of surgical steel and apparatus.

The midwife and my partner, Tom, strained to keep up with me as I moved hour after hour in a hip-swaying trance. I think my baby would have been born onto the cold linoleum floor in the midst of all my gyrating and primeval grunting had the midwife not decided to examine me. She placed one hand on my shoulder to still the rhythm of my footwork and the other between my thighs, blindly probing my cervix.

“She’s ready,” the midwife indicated to Tom, as if I was fresh out of the oven, prime belly of pork. Tom wrapped a firm arm around my waist, and the midwife cajoled me toward the hospital bed.

“You are crowning. It will be safer for the baby to deliver you up here.” She coaxed, patting the bed and then my buttocks as I made the ascent up onto starched white sheets and a giant paper-towel that rustled under my shifting weight.

I knelt even though it made it harder for the midwife to do her job and I screamed despite her tapping my leg and asking me to stop.

“You will scare the other women making noises like that.”

Tom held my hips so that I wouldn’t topple from the bed.

The first time around, just a mere twenty-two months ago, had been so different. I was supine and numb and at the mercy of the obstetrician who vacuumed my son from my retroverted womb after attaching a suction cap to his head. His spine against my spine, and no fluid left to ease his passage, both of us torn and bruised and crying afterwards. All my carefully written notes making up my birth plan dashed with drugs and interventions and an authority that I could not fight.

This birth was hard, but it was all mine, every inch of burning agony. As I felt the baby slide from me, I smiled. I had my girl. A daughter.

Mum always told my sister and me, from the time that we were very young, “Don’t have boys, look at your brother, nothing but trouble.”

I’d failed the first time around and bore a son.

“You’re carrying lower this time,” Mum had beamed through this pregnancy. “You’re having a girl.”

The ultra sound technician hinted at the same thing. “Do you have a preference?” she asked, as she smoothed the cold gel over my mound of pregnancy. She was young and new enough at all of this to still be cheery.

“I’d like a girl this time.”

“Well it looks like you might be lucky,” she said, smiling, waving her wand across my girth to project grey splotches of life on the screen.

Her verdict was the most definitive she could manage under the circumstances. Hospital regulations had changed. It was against current policy to determine the sex of the unborn child. We lived in a community of Bangladeshis whose rising trend of termination of female fetuses had hit the headlines and caused much consternation.

I caressed my belly on the top deck of the bus on the way home. I had a girl, a daughter, and a friend for life. In the following days I bought dresses and painted the room a salmon pink, trying to reconcile my life as a women’s studies student with my desire for gender stereotyping.

“It’s a little boy, love. We have another son.” It was Tom’s voice cutting through my elation. His words bounced off another contraction.

“He’s lovely.” The midwife said, “but hold still, we need to deliver the placenta.”

I struggled to turn over, placenta or no placenta. He, a boy, a son. Surely not?

I looked at the midwife, her hair unraveled from the shared ordeal, her blood splashed uniform, her hands still working to retrieve the afterbirth.

I was on my back now, still contracting. Tom looked grayish, jaundiced even under the light. His eyes narrow and bloodshot, met my own.

He held the swaddled baby to his chest. I strained to see if I could make out the offending genitalia.

“We’ll get you cleaned up in just a moment,” the midwife said. I felt the warmth of bloodshed underneath me, grimaced at its wide reach and the sight of the placenta, as it was plopped into a kidney shaped receptacle and then onto the trolley.

“He looks like you, love,” Tom said. “Look he has a really big nose.” He did, and he had an ample head of hair too, almost too much for something so new. How could he have lived inside me for long enough to grow into what looked like a little old man?

The midwife was stiff from all the bending and rubbed the small of her back, checked her watch; recorded details of the event then summoned help for the clean up.

“There’s been a mistake.” I said. “Take him away. Return him to his mother and get me my girl back.”

The midwife stopped her bustle and furrowed her Irish brow.

“I can hear her crying, you need to hurry.” I added.

“Now look here,” she said, in the same tone she used at me when I was screaming.

“There are some mothers who lose their babies, or their babies are born very sick. You have a lovely healthy son. Now don’t be ungrateful.” And with pursed lips she took him from Tom, unraveled him and placed him on my stomach. He sunk into the now empty sack of flesh and moved his reptilian looking head as if rooting for food.

My sister Zoe arrived later that evening while I was breastfeeding the creature. I had taken to feeling quite sorry for the little mite, possibly due to the rush of hormones in the let down reflex. I hoped that the salmon pink room might help create a male sensitivity, that even thinking that he was a she for the last nine months would stave off any boisterousness, like that exhibited by his brother.

In fact I was so sure that I wanted to keep him, I’d even considered a few names.

“What do you think of Jeremiah or Jedekiah?” I started, and my sister screwed up her pert little nose as if there was a bad smell in the ward.

“What about Zedakiah or Zebadiah?” I asked, looking specifically at Zoe for moral support. “I want a name with a Z in it, like yours. It’s unusual.”

She and Tom both looked at me. Tom, knackered from all the holding and chasing and hours of anticipation, and Zoe, disbelieving, her head cocked to one side, staring at the back of the baby’s head, at all that hair, as if willing one of the names to fit.

“Zacharius?” I said.

“Yes,” Zoe shouted, as if she had won the pools. “Zach for short.” She shook my hand making it a deal that I couldn’t go back on.

Tom grabbed the baby-naming book from the birthing bag. He flicked to the last page. “Zacharius. The lord is renowned. Hebrew. Saccharin or sugar in Greek.”

“He’s sweet, it’s fitting.” Zoe said.

Even though Mum was still waiting for her granddaughter, she rather liked the Zach baby in the end, his acorn colored hair all feathered at the fringe, his sturdy build, placid nature, and his eyes that grew darker and more earnest as the weeks went by. Some days he wore the pink dungarees that I’d bought when I was pregnant. “Pretty baby,” I cooed at him.