From the LabLit short story series
16 August 2009
The more I watch it, the more I wonder what it’s like up there, hovering day and night, stuck to the Earth like a white balloon
Zooey wants to call the baby Armstrong. We try not to laugh but we’re cruel enough to let her see that we’re trying not to.
‘What is it?’ she says, the base of her neck flushing.
We let some of the laughter come out. It trickles into the air. ‘Why Armstrong?’ one of us says. We try to zip our mouths shut.
She’s in the chair with presents at her feet that other people have brought her – a breast pump, a bottle warmer, a nightlight shaped like a moon. We’re sitting in front of her in a row on the settee.
Her eyes go along each of us as if she’s threading us together. ‘I just like the sound of it.’ She strokes the fat stomach, her fingers playing with the pouting bump of the belly button.
‘There’s already an Armstrong,’ one of us says.
Another yawns. ‘There’s lots of Armstrongs, stupid.’
‘But a famous one: Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.’
One of us pretends to be talking through the static of a walkie-talkie. ‘One shmall shtep for man.’
We all join in, except for her. ‘One giant leap for mankind.’ We laugh and push at each other.
‘That’s a last name though. It’s too silly for a first name.’
‘Not as silly as Talula-Does-The-Hula-From-Hawaii. Some people tried to name their kid that. It was in the news.’
‘It’s not. The court stopped it and gave her a normal name.’
‘Did they call her Armstrong?’ We laugh until we feel the tears coming and then we sigh and hold our stomachs as if we’re in agony. Eventually we wipe at our eyes and we’re ok.
‘So, Armstrong,’ we start again. ‘You think that’s a good name, do you?’
She shifts in the chair and lifts up to stretch her back out, her eyes squeezing shut with pain. It’s the same expression she had when we talked her out of taking physics. We didn’t want her to learn more about the planets or their satellites or how gravity held them in place. We wanted her to take drama with us, and she did.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I like it.’
One of us adopts a thinking pose, hand up to the chin and eyes to the ceiling. ‘Didn’t some of those astronauts who flew to the moon go mad afterwards?’
We nod. ‘Yeah, something like that.’
Zooey reaches for her can of Coke, takes a sip and rests it on top of her stomach. ‘Nobody went mad.’
‘They did,’ we say, looking at each other. ‘Look at your mum.’
‘She didn’t,’ she says, straightening.
But we know. We know that nine months ago Zooey and her mum were at home having counselling after Zooey’s dad died and that her mum just lost it.
We know that we threatened Zooey with Chinese burns and telling the whole school her periods had stopped if she didn’t tell us everything. And we know that eventually she did. She said her mum had been talking about the past and had remembered how Zooey was born blue skinned and floppy. We know her mum grabbed a cushion from the settee then and started acting as if she was giving birth to it - spreading her legs and pushing it out while she held onto it. We know she coo-cooed at the cushion as if it had a face and that she had to go to a psychiatric ward for a month. We know all of this.
We turn to see the cushions but all of them are gone.
‘She didn’t go mad,’ she says, again.
‘It was probably because of the moon,’ one of us says, ignoring her.
‘What was?’ says Zooey, biting her lip.
Some of us circle our index fingers at our temples. ‘The astronauts going loopy.’
‘The moon’s funny. Some people go mad when there’s a full moon. And just look at werewolves.’
‘Was your mum born during a full moon?’
Zooey stands up, walks around, shakes her legs out then sits back down. ‘Stop it,’ she says. ‘You’re being stupid.’
We glance around at each other. ‘Your baby’s not due when it’s a full moon is it?’
She pats her stomach.
‘Imagine if it’s a little wolf boy when it comes out - Armstrong the wolf boy.’
‘Yeah, a double curse. Born during a full moon and named after the first man on the moon.’
‘And genetically cursed.’ We look for the baby-cushion again.
We titter and talk about a little hairy baby coming out all covered in blood and white gunk. And about how it would have to be shaved so you could check it had all its bits. We tell her how it would be hungry for blood rather than milk and that it would want to eat her rather than drink from her.
‘You can’t name it Armstrong,’ one of us says. ‘No way.’
Zooey stretches a leg forward and draws a circle with the toe of her trainer. She has the blank stare of a robot on the brink of rebellion – spaced out and ignoring commands.
We sigh and go out into the yard to share a cigarette, leaving her sitting in the chair with her old, round face that has always reminded us of the moon, especially now.
We stand in the yard and smoke. It’s sticky and closed in but Zooey’s mum has scattered new plants around so that it now looks less grey. There are tiny pink flowers in bright pots and heavy, fat buds in others. We pass the cigarette from hand to hand and lean against the walls.
Then one of us looks up as we blow smoke out above our heads.
‘Oh, look, the moon,’ I say.
‘Oh, yeah,’ they say and crush the cigarette out onto the stone before lighting up another.
I stare at its smudged face, out of place in the blue sky.
‘Isn’t it sad?’
They throw me glances then smirk at each other.
The more I watch it, the more I wonder what it’s like up there, hovering day and night, stuck to the Earth like a white balloon, never floating off, never getting to look down on some fresh, new landscape. My stomach drops like a ball.
I think of Zooey and the baby and get an urge to go back into the house. The others mention the baby-cushion and laugh. Then they offer me the cigarette but I shake my head and leave.
In the living room, Zooey’s chair is empty. I stand over the baby presents and reach for the nightlight.
‘Leave them alone,’ says a voice. Zooey is standing at the window looking up at the sky. From the back she is like the rest of us. Shoulder blades like a bird, legs made of sticks.
‘I wasn’t going to do anything.’
She turns and pushes the big lump of her stomach out, her face hard and still. ‘I want you all to go now,’ she says. ‘Please. Go.’
‘I’m sorry about before,’ I say, the words coming from somewhere new. ‘We talk crap.’
She puts her hands on her hips and shifts her weight to the other foot. ‘My mum’s coming back soon. She doesn’t think we should hang around anymore.’ She wipes her nose with the back of her hand. ‘And neither do I.’
I get a feeling like marshmallow and before I know it I have my arms around her. I’m leaning forward and pushing my bottom out for the sake of her stomach, pressing against the globe of her belly.
‘What are you doing?’ she says.
I’m soft and full of heat but she feels like rock. I squeeze harder and the baby kicks my ribs.
‘I like it,’ I say. ‘Armstrong.’
I imagine that she says, ‘I’m glad. That’s all that matters.’ And then that she cries and puts my hand on her stomach and, after a while, hers on top of mine. I imagine we smile and fall quiet - listen until we can almost hear the baby moving in its own small ocean, hear the waves lapping against its tiny feet. I imagine I stroke the bump of an elbow or a foot that pushes out of her body like a mountain yawning into life and that I cup my fingers above it, marvelling at the baby’s bravery, at its need to head out into its own unknown. But what she says is, ‘So what if you do? I don’t care anymore.’
She stands apart from me. Her eyes like black glass.
I feel something like the smack of static in my feet and up through my body. And then the others are at the door asking what’s going on. If this was any other day one of us would have put her in her place – called her a slut for sleeping with the boy she slept with, told her the baby would be a loser just like her and that no kind of baby name would change that.
But today this won’t happen.
Instead Zooey blinks and I tell myself that if she blinks again before I count to four all of us will walk out of the house and never see her again. We’ll let her go.
At four there is a shudder at the roots of her eyelashes and the air between us becomes as charged as lightning. She blinks.
I turn and push the others outside. Each step makes my body grow lighter until it feels as if I’m in zero gravity, losing touch with the ground. I become more weightless the further I go and there’s only air now beneath my feet.
I float up the street. I don’t look back. The others are somewhere behind. I squint skyward for the moon but it’s gone. And there’s nothing up there now but aeroplane trails like ribbed white scars - pulling apart and fading into the blue.