Nick and I sat on the porch watching our neighbors fight in the street. The girl neighbor was hitting the guy neighbor with her flip-flop. She was barefoot and wearing a bikini top. The couple had been squatting in the condemned house down the block. Sometimes I wanted to hit Nick in the street. But not that night. That night we were sitting on the porch. The baby was on my lap. I held her up to eye level. I don’t think she’s mine I said to Nick. Nick said well I saw her come out of you. I said I wanted a DNA test. Nick said she kind of looked like Howard Stern and we went on like that. I finished my glass of wine and Nick made a remark about my drinking. I reminded him that I wasn’t nursing. I wasn’t nursing because the baby wouldn’t latch onto my nipples which I took offense to initially. Then it was quiet until the baby burst out laughing. Uncontrollably. Everything was funny to her; Nick was funny, the neighbors’ domestic violence was funny, her own laughter—funniest of all.
I started grinding my teeth. Insurance didn’t cover much by way of dental so I went to a cheap place in the Valley to get fitted for a mouth guard. I came home and told Nick about the cheap place in the Valley and how it smelled like cigarettes and how the posters were all yellowed and curling but Nick did not find my anecdotes endearing. Nick took my anecdotes as criticism of the life he’d provided for the baby and me. I said I loved the life he’d provided for the baby and me. Then he put on the harness and strapped the baby to his chest like a suicide bomb and went for a walk. My teeth-grinding got worse and started giving me headaches. I called the cheap dentist in the Valley to check on the status of my mouth guard and the receptionist who picked up said that the practice was shutting down because the dentist had died. I said I was sorry and asked what had happened and she told me that the dentist had killed himself. I said Jesus. I must have been one of his last patients and the receptionist said yeah, actually.
On April 1st I decided to surprise Nick with a prank. I strapped the baby into the baby vest and went to Petco. The sales clerk at Petco had no problem selling me a goldfish because I had a baby strapped to my chest which meant I probably didn’t abuse animals. I hadn’t fancied myself an animal abuser either. The prank was simple: Nick drank a lot of water. He kept a large jug of water by the bed and guzzled it every couple of minutes. I decided that I’d put a goldfish in the water jug so that when he went to guzzle the jug he’d see it now contained a goldfish and we’d both have a laugh and stay together forever. But what happened instead was: I put the fish in the jug and Nick went to guzzle it rather absently and the fish came cascading out onto his face before I could say wait! and it went flopping around on the comforter, more traumatizing Nick than pranking him. We got the fish into some new water but the PH was wrong so it died anyway. All the commotion got the baby crying and Nick bounced the baby as he lectured me like how can you still be so immature? You’re about to turn [REDACTED]. And I explained that I hadn’t meant to pelt Nick with the fish but, in fact, intended to strengthen our relationship. Nick said you need to grow up. We have a kid and went on like that and I ground my teeth into plateaus.
The neighbors were at it again. The girl neighbor launched limes at the guy neighbor from the lime tree. She was wearing her bikini top and I wondered if the condemned house had a pool or something. Nick read the newspaper and sipped his coffee. The newspaper was on his phone. I asked what he was reading. He said he was reading an article about a plane crash in the Himalayas. The people were stranded for a long time and started eating eachother. It was systematic. They ate the children first because the children were least likely to survive. Then a rescue mission came and saved them and all the survivors had to live with the fact that they’d eaten the children. Jesus I said. The baby looked at us skeptically from her baby pen.
I was getting the feeling that Nick was going to leave me. The baby wouldn’t latch onto my nipples and I sensed that Nick sensed that I was a failed writer and a phony parent and a functional alcoholic. I Googled things that bond people. Google said trauma. There were stories of army buddies perennially bonded to one another. I noted that Nick and I could not go to war. We were both out of shape and had the baby and I didn’t think there was a war going on anyway. Google said shared experiences bond people. I Googled life-changing experiences. There were a lot of articles about Jesus. There were articles about heroin. There were articles about seeing the Northern Lights and surviving cancer and joining NXVIM and reading Faulkner. I found an article about a popular research chemical called 2CX. It was a dopamine enhancer and an animal sedative used in small doses to cure schizophrenia and hair loss. People who took it recounted hearing angels singing. They reconnected with their high school sweethearts and rekindled their marriages. Some spoke to God or accidentally swallowed their tongues or finished the Sunday crossword. Though it wasn’t FDA approved it was very unlikely to kill you. It caused some eyeball swelling. That didn’t seem so bad. I didn’t want to read Faulkner.
Have you heard about 2CX? I asked Nick. Mhm Nick made a noise like he was not listening to me. He didn’t look up from the newspaper. I said I thought we should try it that weekend for our anniversary while Nick’s mom had the baby. Nick said he’d pick some up at Sprouts later. I’m serious I said. Nick said we were too old to smoke some new drug. I said you didn’t smoke it so much as you dabbed it into your eyes with a dropper. He asked me why we would want to dab something into our eyes and I said because I felt like we were fading away. I said he looked at me differently. I said our relationship needed a little je ne sais quoi and I thought that je ne sais quoi might be this research chemical I read about online. I said it evoked passion and pastel hallucinations and he sighed. He asked how long it lasted because he was going to the driving range on Sunday. I said he should be fine by then.
The girl neighbor was tanning in a lawn chair outside the condemned house. I walked up to her with the baby in the baby vest. I was wearing the baby vest backwards so it was more like a baby backpack. I said hey to the girl neighbor and something about how it was such a nice day, one in a series of nice days, and she looked at me like I was a cop. The guy neighbor was working on a car. He was making a lot of banging noises and swearing.
I said men.
She said psh, right. Then she said is that your kid?
And I said yeah.
She said kind of looks like Howard Stern.
I said I know. Then I said do you know where I could buy some 2CX?
She said excuse me? but not like she didn’t hear me. Like I’d insulted her.
I said it’s a research chemical.
She said I know what it is.
I said it’s for my anniversary.
She said are you serious?
I said I have money.
The girl neighbor didn’t say anything but took out an iPhone from the 1800s and texted for a while. What about your friend here she said about the baby. I said that the baby was sober. Then I quickly amended my statement to say that the baby would be staying at her grandmother’s over the weekend. The girl neighbor told me I could meet someone in Lancaster that night who would hook me up. Then she looked at me like I was the stupidest person she’d ever met in her entire life and went back inside the condemned house.
That’s what you’re wearing to buy drugs? I asked Nick. He asked what was wrong with what he was wearing and I said he looked like an HR representative. Nick wasn’t on board with the 2CX plan even after I told him that it only caused homicidal tendencies in less than 1% of users. But he said he’d come with me to Lancaster so that I didn’t get murdered. I said that if we both got murdered then the baby would be an orphan. He said we’d have to bring the baby too so that way we would all get murdered. And then we’d just be gone. Like those children in the plane crash. Like my dentist. So we decided to bring the baby. Plus the baby liked car rides.
In the car, Nick told me that Lancaster is known for its Chinese food. I asked why and he said because a lot of Chinese families settled there and I asked why and he said he didn’t know why. I noted that Lancaster had very little geographic similarity to China. Or at least not the Chinese landscapes I’d seen pictured in screensavers; green, mountainous. Lancaster was mostly desert with a few outlet malls. The sun set. The baby was asleep in her carseat. She loved car rides. She loved everything. Except my nipples. After we’d been driving for about 45 minutes the car GPS told us to turn down a road where we’d meet someone to sell us some 2CX. The girl neighbor had told me to bring $500 cash and I had said that seemed kind of steep and she said inflation and shrugged. So we had $500 cash. We passed a billboard for a new movie about the Himalayan plane crash. We drove until the road dead-ended at some train tracks. My heart was pounding and I could tell Nick’s was too. He kept playing drums on the steering wheel. I love you I said and he said he did too. He killed the headlights and it was dark.
Nick lit the flashlight on his phone. We strapped the baby to his chest and walked down the train tracks for about half a mile as instructed. He took my hand. We were more in love already. Eventually a silhouette appeared from behind an idle freight train and walked towards us. As the silhouette got closer I could see that it was the guy neighbor. Nick shined the phone flashlight at him. His eyes were red and engorged and his pupils were floating listlessly like the triangle center in a shaken magic 8-ball. Put that fucking light out he said. Nick turned off the flashlight. It took our eyes a moment to adjust and take in what was going on. What was going on was the guy neighbor had pulled a gun on us. He told us to empty our pockets. Nick and I put our hands up even though he hadn’t instructed us to. The guy neighbor noticed the baby in the baby vest. Are you two retarded? Why would you bring a baby here? he asked. I said respectfully we hadn’t anticipated things unfolding this way. He said I’d never bring my kid to a place like this and I wondered if he meant that he would never bring his kid to buy drugs or to Lancaster in general. I hadn't realized that the neighbors had a baby at all. I wondered if, under different circumstances, our respective children would have played together.
The guy neighbor spit into the gravel. Nick and I slowly emptied our pockets and tossed their contents at his feet: our phones and wallets, the $500 cash and the car keys, a pacifier. The baby cooed. She loved the guy neighbor. She loved everything. Then my phone started ringing on the ground. The ringing startled the guy neighbor and he shot my phone and the ringing stopped. The gunshot made the baby laugh. Uncontrollably. She’d be slapping her knee if her limbs had that kind of autonomy. Smoke rose from my phone screen. Did you tell anyone you were coming here? shouted the guy neighbor and we said no. He told us to get on our knees and face the other direction. I wondered if he would shoot us despite the baby. If Nick would die in that outfit. I wondered how long it would take the Lancaster PD to find us out here. I wondered if we’d be on the news and if I’d become posthumously famous. If the short stories I wrote in college would gain notoriety. Nick’s colleagues would absorb his clients. My friends would post photos of me online with morose captions. People would look at the photos and say they were so young. They’d say I heard they were having marital problems. They’d say that baby looks like Howard Stern. And then we’d just be gone. The baby tired herself out from laughing and it got quiet. It was a nice night. It was one in a series of nice nights.
We were on our knees on the ground in Lancaster. It didn’t look anything like China. I peeked over my shoulder at the guy neighbor who still had the gun pointed at our backs. I wondered if he was having pastel hallucinations. He said you two are the dumbest motherfuckers I’ve ever met and started walking back the way we came. I thought about the neighbors’ teamwork involved in orchestrating this plan. They would never bring their baby to a place like this. They would never eat the children first. They might have been the perfect couple. I didn’t share this insight with Nick because we had just been robbed. We waited for a few moments and listened to the guy neighbor’s footsteps in gravel get further and further away. Then we stood up. By the time we reached the road, our car was gone. It was a lease. I thought of the carseat in the back.
We walked forever. Nick didn’t speak to me as we walked. I strapped on the baby because Nick was shaking and it was making her fussy. She weighed a ton. I noted that she must be obese and we should call a doctor. I wondered if our insurance would cover diet baby formula. We walked until we found one of the good Chinese restaurants and asked to use their phone. We waited for Nick’s mom to come get us like a couple of teenagers. The restaurant owner gave us some soup. He waved at the baby. She loved him. We said we’d been robbed but he looked at us knowingly. I wondered if he had any 2CX. I wondered if Nick would divorce me. Nick put his head in his hands. In the car there was a lot of how can you be so careless? You’re about to turn [REDACTED]. You need to grow up. You are parents now. How could you put the baby in this type of situation. And then a lot of silence. When we got home, the neighbors had cleared out of the condemned house and the car seat was on our lawn.