When I gave birth to Oron, it was an exhausting labor – twenty-six hours in total – and, toward the end, I knew something was wrong. They had numbed me up so completely by then that I couldn’t feel a thing, but I could tell when it was all over. I reached my arms out for the baby, but they wouldn’t give it to me.
“There’s an abnormality,” the doctor told me and Jake. Midway through the labor they had convinced Jake that he would be more comfortable out in the waiting room, and they had only brought him back when it was all over.
“Show me my baby,” I pleaded with them. It was swaddled in the corner, but I couldn’t even see its face.
“We want you to be aware of all the options,” the doctor said.
“Just show me,” I said, shouting it this time.
Jake was silent, his hand limp in mine. The doctor turned to the nurse, nodded. She hesitated before picking up the swaddled bundle, but then she brought it to me and laid it in my arms, the cotton sheeting still obscuring the face. I looked up at Jake, but his eyes had glazed.
I pulled back the sheet. A small, wrinkled face poked out, with bulging black eyes on either side of a bullet-shaped head. I pulled the sheet back further, revealing a surprisingly soft shell, four armor-plated legs, a tiny stub of a tail.
“What is that?” Jake sputtered, dropping my hand and stepping back.
“Please try to stay calm,” said the doctor.
“Are you telling me my son is a turtle?” Jake said, his face flushed red.
I was still holding the baby, cradled on his back, and he splayed his puckered limbs out like he was bicycling, snapping his mouth open and closed in search of his first meal.
“He’s hungry,” I said. “He needs something to eat.”
“In these kinds of situations,” the doctor said, placing an extra emphasis on the word situations, “there are certain options.”
“What kind of options?” Jake asked.
“Options for adoption. Zoos, primarily.”
“He’s hungry,” I said. “How do I feed him?”
“And parks. But mostly zoos.”
Jake continued asking questions, about the likelihood the baby would grow out of this, about the statistics, about the zoos and the parks. No one noticed when I let the baby clamp his mouth onto my breast.
They made us keep Oron at the hospital for a month. For observation, they said. I sat by his crib all day, every day, separated out from the sea of other, identical cribs, holding other, identical babies. Jake came, too, at first, but then he had to go back to work. The health insurance would only pay for the first week of observation; after that, we were on our own, and Jake stayed up late at night with a calculator and a notepad, typing out numbers that looked far into the future.
When we finally were allowed to bring Oron home, I held him, still swaddled, with a hot water bottle on my lap. His shell had hardened up and he had almost doubled in size, a healthy growth rate, according to the doctor. Only my parents were waiting at the house to greet us.
“Didn’t you tell your parents we were coming home?” I asked. Jake was pulling the car into the driveway and used that as an excuse not to look at me.
“I told them there was a problem and it would be better if they waited.”
I wanted to talk about this more, but we couldn’t leave my parents standing there in the driveway, arms full of casseroles.
“Hello, Grandma and Grandpa!” I said as I shut the car door behind me. “Come meet your grandson.” I had told them Oron was different, and I tried not to look too hard at their expressions when I pulled the blanket back from Oron’s face. By that point, I was used to the first moment of surprise. The doctors, the nurses, the other parents, coming in to visit their bland, generic babies and thinking they’d stop by to say hello and congratulations, one bland, generic baby’s parent to another.
My mother smiled a tight, closed-lip smile and then said the words I could tell she had prepared – memorized and rehearsed and readied – so no matter what Oron was like, they would still come out as needed. “Let me hold my grandson,” she said, steeling her upper body as if I were about to hand her a great weight. My father handed Jake a cigar and clapped him on the back.
“There will be others,” he said to Jake.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Everyone’s special in their own way.” He shrugged and lit his cigar.
When we first got Oron home, Jake tried to hold him, to swaddle him and rock him, but Oron would always throw a fit when Jake picked him up, his small jaw snapping wildly, only quieting when Jake handed him back to me. I told Jake this didn’t mean anything, that Oron was only attached to me because I fed him.
We gave the holding a rest for a while and it looked like things were getting better. Oron would let Jake stroke his shell, would lick pureed chard off of Jake’s finger. So we tried the holding again one night when Oron was about eight weeks old, Jake gingerly picking up his son, Oron’s jaw immediately going wild, his legs flailing. Jake handed Oron back to me and I cradled him until he calmed down, wiggling his small wrinkled head into the crook of my elbow and going to sleep.
“I can’t do this, Maria,” Jake said finally, once he was sure Oron was sleeping and couldn’t hear. Jake was drinking a glass of Glenlivet, neat, and he took it down in one long gulp before continuing. “Maybe if it was a koala. Some people get koalas, you know. I Googled it. But a turtle? Who won’t even let me hold him? It’s too hard. It’s too hard for me.”
Jake isn’t a bad man. At first, after he moved out, he would visit, and we would all go together to Chuck E. Cheese for pizza. Oron liked playing in the ball pit. Eventually, though, Jake moved out of the state. For work, he said. The checks keep coming, but he never calls or writes. I looked him up on Facebook the other day and saw a photo of him with another woman, another baby. One of those generic babies.
I told Oron that his father died in a tragic motorcycle accident.
After the divorce, my parents offered to let Oron and me move in with them, but I said no thank you. Oron was such a good baby, he was sleeping through the night and starting to transition to solid foods. I bought all organic, of course: wedges of iceberg lettuce, baby carrots, slices of Granny Smith apples, his favorite.
At the urging of Oron’s doctor, I joined a support group. There weren’t any specific to Oron’s condition, not in this part of the state. As it was, I had to drive an hour, Oron nestled into a cardboard box and belted into the seat next to me. We listened to the oldies station and I sang along with the Four Tops. Oron’s claws were just starting to grow in and he swiped them slowly across the bottom of the box, making a kish kish sound in time to the music as it slowly built to its chorus, the tone modulating between major and minor as if unsure whether this was a sad or happy song.
We sat in a circle of folding chairs in a church basement with the parents of rabbits, cockatoos, goldfish. Some parents came together and held hands during the meeting; others, like me, came alone. We drank weak coffee out of too-small Styrofoam cups and ate slightly stale donuts and commiserated about the way people looked at us in public, the stares and whispers. We talked about our fears for the future, about how we stayed up at night worrying about what would happen to our children after we were gone, even if that was forty years away.
At the end of my third meeting, a man with kind eyes approached me and Oron at the donut table. He was holding a boxer puppy in his arms.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m Roger, and this is Lewis.”
“Hello, Lewis,” I said. “Hello, Roger.” I introduced myself and Oron, and Roger said hello to Oron, but he kept eye contact with me.
The four of us went for pizza after the meeting, and after the meeting after that. After three meetings and pizzas, it became more than meetings and pizzas. I stayed over at Roger’s house once a week, because it was close to the meetings and he said it was easier for me, given Oron’s condition. I asked him what he meant, how it was easier.
“You know what I mean,” he said, suddenly getting uncomfortable.
“I don’t know what you mean, Roger. That’s why I asked.”
“He needs so much less attention.”
“That’s not true,” I said, and I was about to list all the ways it was not true, but I was happy with Roger, with his warm breath on my back in the morning, and so I let it drop.
A few weeks later, Oron and I went to Roger and Lewis’s house after the meeting, as usual. By that point, I had set up a little space for Oron, in the corner of Lewis’s room, his second-favorite blanket nestled into a wide cardboard box. I had hung a little mobile over it and everything, so he would know he was safe here in this strange place, so that he could look up at night and know that he was loved, the stars and planets swirling all around him, a whole universe for him to explore when he grew up.
Roger and I went to the bedroom and shut the door. Things were going well with us. It had only been a few months, but we were already talking about moving in together. Oron and Lewis were pals, curling up to each other sometimes while they slept, Oron tucked into the folds of Lewis’s belly.
I was down to my bra and underwear when we heard a startled yowl. I pushed Roger off of me and pulled on my shirt, running out of the bedroom with Roger right behind me in his briefs. Oron’s mouth was clamped tight on Lewis’s leg, a large chunk taken out of his shell. Roger moved to pull Oron off of Lewis, yanking on his body.
“Don’t touch him!” I yelled, but it was too late. Roger had succeeded in grabbing Oron, but Oron had wheeled his long neck around and had already clamped down on Roger’s thumb.
“Motherfucker!” Roger yelled, dropping Oron on the ground. Now Roger was bleeding, Lewis was bleeding, Oron was bleeding. Everyone was bleeding except for me.
Lewis had already calmed down and was curled up in the corner licking his leg. Oron was desperately trying to claw his way across the room, kish kish kish kish, a fast, frantic scrabbling, but his claws weren’t able to gain much purchase on the tile floor.
I ran over to him and swooped him up. His shell was cracked in several places, the bone showing through. “Look what you did to him,” I said.
“What I did to him?” Roger was squeezing his thumb in his hand. “Look what he did to me! And to Lewis!”
“Lewis must have started it,” I said. I stroked Oron’s shell, trying to calm him down. His little legs were still whirling in the air, still trying to get away. “Oron can’t call out for help. He was fighting back.”
“I’m sure Lewis was just playing.” Lewis had stood up at that point and come over to Roger. “I’m sure he didn’t realize.” Roger bent down to look at Lewis’s leg. A little bit of blood was matted in the fur, but otherwise the leg looked fine. He wasn’t even limping.
“We have to go,” I said. I gingerly put Oron into his cardboard traveling box and retrieved my pants and shoes. “We have to get to the doctor.”
“Look, I’m sorry. I’ll go with you.”
“We’re fine,” I said. “Stay here. Lewis needs more attention than Oron anyway.”
Oron kept making the kish kish noise the whole way to the doctor, like he was trying to escape, or maybe trying to tell me something.
Roger called to apologize. The doctor said Oron would be fine, the shell would grow back. I still told Roger I needed some time. He offered to pay the doctor bill. I told him it wasn’t about that.
“Don’t do this, Maria,” he said.
“Don’t use Oron as an excuse. You know that’s what’s happening here.” I was silent. “We can work this out,” Roger said. “We make a good family, all of us together.”
“All of us together gave Oron three holes in his shell,” I said. Then I hung up the phone.
I took Oron to the creek behind our house. It was a hot day, the air still and muggy, the grass wet with condensation. The doctor had also told me that Oron was approaching full maturity, that it might be time for him to learn more independence.
“Well, here we are,” I said to him. He looked up at me. Usually we sat on the bank and played together, me uprooting a handful of grass and swishing the blades around for him to chase. But that afternoon, I set him down on a large, flat rock next to the creek.
Oron sat motionless. I crouched a few feet away. We stayed that way for minute upon minute, my legs prickling and losing feeling, the water streaming past, dancing over and around the rocks, curling up into small jetties near the bank. A dragonfly flew by and Oron snapped his mouth at it, the languid rediscovery of a long-buried instinct. It skittered away easily, and I watched him watch it go. Finally, tentatively, so tentatively, he edged one of his small feet down the side of the rock, closer and closer to the water’s surface. His foot kept moving, millimeter by slow, painstaking millimeter, toward the water. The closest he had ever been to water before was swimming in the bathtub. He was a good swimmer, or at least he was in the bathtub, but the creek was an entirely different thing, full of rocks and currents and depths and shallows.
Just as his claws were about to make contact, I straightened up and bounded over to grab him, my legs on fire. “That’s enough for today, I think,” I told him, and we went back to the house, where we listened to the Supremes and made a Caesar salad for dinner, with raw egg and anchovies and everything, lots of protein to help him grow up strong.
Yesterday was Oron’s third birthday. We had a party with streamers and balloons, and two cakes, one chocolate and one I made special out of kale and coconut and mashed banana. My parents were the only guests, but that was enough, and we all got along great until it was time for presents.
They knew there were plenty of gifts Oron would have adored: a new sun lamp, a bigger tank, a stuffed animal. But when it came time to open their present, my parents had gotten him a series of books called I Can Read.
“Really, Mom?” I said, holding up one of the books.
“It says it’s for ages three to five,” she said. Next to her, my father ate his chocolate cake. He had taken a slice of the kale-coconut-banana one at first and struggled to swallow it.
“You know Oron has different abilities,” I said quietly, shooting a glance at him. He was occupied with a streamer and did not seem to be listening.
“You have to try, Maria,” my mother said, her voice more urgent. “There has to be some hope for improvement. Or otherwise what’s the point?”
This morning, we both had leftover cake for breakfast. A special treat. We ate it out on the deck in the sun, and when we were done with breakfast I wasn’t ready to go in. I lay down, my back on the wooden slats of the deck, and I closed my eyes, listening to Oron as he explored the perimeter, all carefully fenced-in. His claws have grown in fully now, and he made his kish kish noise as he circled the deck. He sounded like he might circle forever, and I might lie there forever, him circling me. But finally, he came back to me, and the kish kish quieted. I put my hand flat on his hot back, the wounds already starting to knit closed, and together we lay still, our heartbeats – mine fast, his slow – the only sound.