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Voices: Coming Home

I had no idea how messy this would be. I crouch on a latex glove full of ice, the hospital's makeshift diaper. I feel like my insides are going to pour out, but it doesn't matter -- because of him. I climb onto my hospital bed, pluck Archer out of his bassinet, and put him on my chest. I'm exhausted, but I can't sleep. I just want to stare at him. I'm especially in awe of Archer's cuticles, how they look like they could belong to a grown person even though he's only hours old. I wonder what he prefers: being inside of me or nestled under my arm.

This is what it feels like to love somebody, I think. However I defined love before now seems so terribly off. So not like this.

When I look over at my husband, Hal, I know he knows. From this moment forward, Hal will be the only person who understands how I feel, who can look at Archer with the same eyes, no matter how differently we may look at each other or the world.

I want to live in this hospital bed, in this moment. The house will soon be a mess and the nurse won't come in to check on me and wrap Archer the right way in his swaddling blankets. We're so comfortable right here and now, in our bubble world with a red button that brings help. There won't be any red buttons tomorrow.

When we leave, it takes us well over an hour to make sure Archer is buckled in safely and the car seat is secure. I swallow tears and sit squashed against the door, watching out my station wagon's window as the world speeds by.

Now Archer's a week old. His hands are neatly folded under his slightly jaundiced chin, and his breath sounds like a tide, in and out. Once in a while he sneezes, and I say, "Bless you" from the other room. And even at 5 a.m., when he's wailing to be held, fed, changed, I am so overwhelmed with love that it doesn't matter. In many ways, I'm only a week old, too. Everything looks different now, a lighter shade. A baby! In my arms! I pinch myself. He's still there, with his head on my knees, waving his hands. I'm crazy in love and scared to death.

Today Archer is 3 weeks old, and the ecstasy can only be matched by the agony. He won't sleep. He just screams and cries and won't eat, and I just want to sleep, but I can't. Finally, when I do doze off, Archer's awake, and it's my job to stop his cries. I pace the living room with the bedroom door closed and the windows shut and the fan blowing on our faces. "I can't handle this," Hal says. "We should give him up for adoption. I really can't live this way!"

Suddenly I feel like I have two screaming babies, except I want to protect one and kill the other. "I hate you so much right now!" I shout.

I sound like I'm 12 years old, but I don't care. I'm pissed off.

I feel completely alone even though I haven't had a moment to myself since before Archer was born. All I keep thinking is, What have I done? What am I doing here -- with two strange boys in my house? Is this supposed to be home?

I feel the need to escape. I take a walk and emerge from my cocoon to enter a world that stinks of exhaust, cigarettes, and homeless people. Then I think, I want one -- a cigarette, not a homeless person. I head full speed toward a convenience store with my "purse" over my shoulder: a giant diaper bag with crap sticking out, pacifiers hanging from straps, diapers, wipes, blankets, bottles, and maxi pads.

I'm afraid one of my neighbors will see me. Mothers who smoke are disgusting, I think, but I hardly care at this point. I need a cigarette. I just can't let anyone see me smoking.

I pull my hoodie over my head, buy a pack, and run out the back door before the cashier can give me my change. The alley smells like garbage and oil puddles. I sit anyway and search my bag for a lighter. I burst into tears. This is my life: No lighter and sleepless nights. Will I someday understand or at least get used to this? Will I ever sleep? Where have all my friends gone? I want my mom. I miss being taken care of. I want to sleep and wake up 16 again, with my high school boyfriend and flat belly and list of things I want to do before I turn 25.

I flag down a rocker chick with pink dreads and striped tights under an orange tutu. She's smoking, so I ask her for a light. Face-to-face with my past, I ask her for her name. "Rachel," she says. That's my sister's name, a name I've been going by since she was born and relatives started confusing us. "I'm Rebecca."

"Oh," she says and walks away.

Crouching behind the trash bin, I inhale long drags. I finish the cigarette and take the long way home. Quietly I unlock the front door and wearily make my way inside. Hal's asleep on the couch, and Archer's asleep in his swing beside him. I sit next to my husband and take his hand. He smiles, half sleeping, and opens one eye. "You okay?" he asks.

"Yeah. Are you?"

"I think so."

"Me too. I love you."

"I love you, too," he says.

He doesn't say that I smell like cigarettes. He just scoots over so that I can lie beside him. I get lost in the sounds of stillness, the sweeping whoosh of the swing, the tick of the wall clock that counts the seconds of peace and quiet like a child counts the cracks in a sidewalk.

I know this won't be easy. There will be times when I'll hate myself and my husband and maybe even Archer, when I'll want to be alone and won't be able to, when I'll want to get in my car and drive to a rustic shack where I can hide out and write, swear, and smoke. But that's the other side of what it means to be in love. To be passionate is to momentarily fantasize about throwing it all away.

Hal and I lock tired eyes. A certain sadness permeates as we accept that our wild fling has ended suddenly. We've entered a new life phase in our lives with lines we mustn't cross and things we shouldn't say. There's a baby now, one who relies on us to show him the ropes, set a good example, and love him unconditionally. We'll make plenty of mistakes as we find our way as parents, but we're going to be okay.

From the book Rockabye, by Rebecca Woolf. Reprinted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2008.