Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 14 • Summer 2005 • Fiction

The Gift

Tom Dolby

It was a Sunday late in April when Matthew first felt the pain on his left side. He and his partner Scott had just come from brunch at the Woolsey-Harrises' (Paul and Ezra), and they were both convinced that it was indigestion. The coffee had been too strong, perhaps, or maybe Matthew had eaten a bad piece of lox.

Matthew dragged himself out to their tiled deck overlooking Central Park West. It had taken them most of their adult lives to be able to afford this apartment, and another year and a half to convince the co-op board that they were a responsible gay couple who wouldn't be throwing wild parties or dying of AIDS. Matthew was now thirty-two and Scott was thirty-eight; they had met five years ago, when they both lived in the same building in Chelsea. Matthew was one of the founders of a firm that specialized in entertainment PR, while Scott was the head chef and owner of a downtown restaurant that bore his name.

Now they lived in their dream apartment: ample space and light, a living room decorated with prints by Hockney and Warhol, a chef's kitchen, a bedroom all in white.

What could this pain be? Scott recalled the years when every cold, every pain, every sniffle could mean the onset of something terrible. Before meeting each other, Matthew and Scott had been tested on multiple occasions, and each time, they were negative. Neither had slept with anyone else for years, or so each told the other, and yet there was this lingering feeling that simply by being gay, by being in that minority so hated by certain members of the Christian right, they were going to get it.

As he lay out in the mid-afternoon sun, the pain in Matthew's side persisted.

Matthew went to see his doctor, Dr. Blume, on Monday. A kind, balding man who had known the couple since they were in their twenties, Dr. Blume couldn't find anything wrong with Matthew, and so he sent him home with a recommendation of Pepto-Bismol and a bland diet for the next several days.

The next morning, Matthew woke up feeling queasy again. He ate a bowl of cereal, hoping it would calm his upset stomach. In the middle of making coffee, he ran to the bathroom, leaned over the toilet, and threw up.

"You can't go to work like this," Scott said, after Matthew had emerged from the bathroom. "You're green. Go see Dr. Blume again. Tell him the problem isn't going away."

Matthew hated being late for work, but he dutifully went back to Dr. Blume.

Matthew called Scott at noon at the restaurant.

"I'm supposed to stay here overnight," Matthew said. "They want to do some tests."

"Oh, my God," Scott said.

Matthew could hear the din of the restaurant in the background. He hated bothering Scott during the lunch hour.

"Are they testing for, you know . . ."

"Jesus, Scott," Matthew snapped at his partner. "You know there's no way I could have gotten it."

After work that evening, Scott went to the hospital to keep Matthew company, only leaving reluctantly at midnight after Matthew urged him to go home.

Matthew called him the next afternoon.

"You're not going to believe this," Matthew said. "I still can't believe it myself. I can't even say it out loud."

Oh, God, Scott thought. Oh, please God.

"Tell me now," Scott said.

"I can't. I need to tell you in person."

"Matt, tell me now! I can't stand this!"

"Okay," Matthew said. "I'm pregnant."

Scott was sure he was kidding, but Matthew was serious. Scott tried to convince Matthew that Dr. Blume had been joking, but he said several other doctors had confirmed it as well.

They both took the rest of the day off and met back at the apartment.

"I don't know what to say," Scott said. "This is incredible. How on earth could this be happening?"

"I don't know," Matthew said. "The doctor said it has nothing to do with sex. It's like it just happened, independent of anything else."

"How are they going to deliver it?" Scott asked.

"C-section," Matthew said. "You know what Dr. Blume said when I asked the same thing? He said, 'Well, I'm certainly not going to pull it out of your ass!'"

Scott looked at his partner. Even in his early thirties, Matt still looked like he was twenty-six; he had none of the jowls of oncoming middle age. He was flushed after rushing home from the hospital. Or was it a different kind of flush? Scott tried to imagine Matt in the throes of pregnancy, fat and happy. The thought made him shudder; they had never imagined having a child at this point in their lives, let alone actually carrying one. Having children had always been a distant possibility, something they would do when they were much older.

"I think I need a Klonopin," Scott said. "Do you want one?"

"No," Matthew said. "No drugs, no alcohol, no smoking. Thank God we don't smoke anymore."

"Thank God," Scott said.

That night, Scott polished off a bottle of red wine on his own with the roast chicken and risotto he had prepared for both of them.

"I still don't see how -- I mean -- it's just too bizarre," Scott said, once they had finished their meal.

"I don't know what it means," Matthew said. "I feel like I don't have any control over what my body is doing."

Matthew went to bed at ten that night. Over the next several days, he resumed work at the office, but it didn't feel right. He was tired and queasy nearly all the time, and his work suddenly seemed insignificant.

He called Dr. Blume, who told him to take some time off.

"Work from home," the doctor said. "That will be better than your staying at the hospital, though that is something that may have to happen."

"I'd rather it didn't," Matthew said.

"Of course not," the doctor said.

On the second day that Matthew worked from home, the phone rang. It was a reporter from the Post.

"We've gotten a tip," the reporter said. "I know this sounds bizarre . . . is there a pregnant -- "

"What's it to you?" Matthew said, and hung up.

The next morning, Matthew got up early and decided to go for a walk in the park. As he walked through the lobby, he heard a commotion outside his building.

"What's going on?" he asked the doorman, Raul.

"Reporters," Raul said. "I called the cops, but they haven't come yet. Something about a man being pregnant. Sounds like a hoax to me."

"How strange," Matthew said.

"You going for a walk?" Raul asked.

"I don't think so," Matthew said.

Back upstairs, he was hit by a wave of hunger. He raided the refrigerator, reheating some vegetarian lasagna that Scott had brought from work a few nights ago and making himself a provolone and turkey sandwich. Carbo load, he thought. I'm going to turn into a blimp.

When he finished eating, he ran to the bathroom to throw up again.

Scott came home from work early that evening.

"Are the reporters gone?" Matthew asked.


Matthew waved Scott's question away. "I'm hungry," he said. "Can you pick up some fast food?"

Scott looked at him in horror. The only time they ever ate fast food was when they were driving to the country with friends and happened to be passing through the suburbs.

"I've been doing some reading," he said. "You need a balanced diet. Let me run to the market and I'll cook something for you."

"As long as it's not lasagna," Matthew said.

The next morning, there was a story on the front page of the Post about Matthew's supposed pregnancy. It quoted Matthew's doctor, who said that he could neither confirm nor deny his patient's status, but that yes, he thought a male pregnancy might be possible.

Matthew was furious. He called Dr. Blume.

"I'm sorry," Dr. Blume said. "They ambushed me outside my office. I didn't know what to say."

"How did they find out?"

"It could have been anyone," Dr. Blume said. "A nurse, someone in the waiting room who overheard something. High profile cases tend to leak. Unfortunately, you can't keep a lid on these things for very long."

The next morning, Matthew heard chanting in the street. When he went to look down from their deck, he saw that there were hundreds of people on Central Park West: protesters, reporters, curious onlookers. Matthew went inside and turned on the local news channel.

A correspondent was cataloguing some of the groups outside: A fundamentalist Christian group said Matthew's pregnancy was the work of the devil. A pro-life group was praying for the survival of Matthew's baby. A messiah watchdog group said that Matthew was pregnant with the second coming of Christ.

Since there was no information available on Matthew's situation, the reporters were covering the reaction to it instead. Traffic had been stopped on Central Park West, and the police had been called.

Matthew ran to the toilet.

Scott and Matthew read about the commotion in the newspaper the next day. Police were now stationed outside the building, so there would be no more demonstrations. The phone calls, however, had continued all day, to the point where Matthew had to unplug the phone. According to the news reports, some of the demonstrators wanted Matthew to go into the custody of the church. Others thought the child should be destroyed. A medical rights group was demonstrating against the demonstrators, saying that it was Matthew's decision how to have or not have the child. Some gay rights leaders praised the miracle of Matthew's pregnancy, saying that it had the potential to bridge the gap between gays and the radical right; others spoke out about the hypocrisy of the church using Matthew's situation to further its own agenda.

Matthew didn't know which side he was on, apart from his own.

"You realize that you won't be able to go out of the house anymore," Scott said after they had finished reading the reports to each other. "At least not alone."

"I could get a bodyguard," Matthew said.

"I don't know," Scott said. "Whether they're for or against it, for these people this is bigger than a visit from the Pope and Martha Stewart combined."

Scott's restaurant was located downtown, just seven blocks from where the World Trade Center had been eight months earlier. Business was slowly getting back to normal, but there was still a scar on downtown that Scott thought could take years to heal. During the rescue and cleanup effort, Scott's restaurant had served meals to the local residents and firemen. He had continued to do so into the new year as a gesture of goodwill, visiting the fire station once a week with hot meals for forty men. The firemen appreciated the change from their usual menu. Scott always had the kitchen make more food than was required, and the leftovers were given to the homeless. Scott was pleased that he could serve men and women who might never set foot in his restaurant otherwise.

New York, Scott thought to himself, had become a place where anything could happen.

Over the next several weeks, Matthew tried to stay in touch with his office, but he found it difficult. He was exhausted all the time, and decisions started to be made without him. Eventually, he acknowledged that he wouldn't be able to work until after he had the baby; his body simply wasn't equipped to handle the stress the way a woman's was. He listened to weekly staff meetings via speakerphone, commenting occasionally, but for the most part, he was now divorced from the day to day business of his company.

Matthew had started to notice strange things happening around the apartment. He would think the refrigerator was empty, then discover it filled with food an hour later; the water would be running in the bathtub in the middle of the night; he would accidentally cut himself with a knife and find the next day that the wound had disappeared. In his tired and woozy state, he decided that these occurrences were a product of his imagination, that he had enough to worry about already without obsessing over anything else.

For one thing, he had started gaining weight: first a few pounds, then a few more, until he found himself fifteen pounds heavier than he had been just months ago. It was frightening, but it was expected, he told himself.

The smell of food cooking made him sick to his stomach, though he was hungry all the time.

Dr. Blume and his associates tried to visit Matthew whenever they could for the necessary check-ups, but there were several instances when Matthew had to leave the apartment and go to the hospital. Scott decided that with the assistance of two bodyguards, he and Matthew would be safe leaving the rear entrance of their building, where a car would be waiting to take them to the hospital.

The baby now felt like a baseball in Matthew's stomach, an undigested meal that wouldn't go away.

Matthew had started having vivid dreams, dreams about being abducted by aliens, dreams about giving birth to a small bear. He had dreams about doing all the things that he wasn't supposed to do: drinking and smoking and handling raw meat. He had dreams about unknowingly harming the baby.

Since Matthew's clothes no longer fit, Scott bought him a temporary wardrobe of sweatpants and T-shirts from the Gap.

"You're starting to get the pregnant woman's waddle," Scott joked.

Matthew glared at him as he ambled around the apartment, hand on back, belly pushed out. He tried to stand up straight, but it hurt too much. It seemed more natural to stand the other way.

Matthew hated the way he looked and felt. Scott could pretend that it didn't matter, that he loved him just the same, but the reality was that they hadn't had sex since Matthew had first felt the pains. He had also noticed that Scott had been drinking more each night, as if to compensate for his partner's sobriety. Matthew wanted to please Scott, but the thought of sex disgusted him. A small part of him worried about how long Scott would put up with this; the nagging feeling lingered in the middle of the day as he sat in the silent apartment.

The next week, they went back to the hospital for an ultrasound. The two wanted to know the gender of the child, wanted to know everything.

"It's a boy," the nurse told them.

That evening, they began discussing names. They had been thinking about it individually, but hadn't wanted to say anything. It was too strange to name something that didn't exist.

"I like Christopher," Scott said.

"How about Sebastian?" Matthew said.

"Sebastian?" Scott sniffed. "Why Sebastian? It sounds like something you name a dog."

"I can't explain it," Matthew said. "Sebastian. It's perfect."

In the basement of Matthew's building there was a swimming pool, so every day he attempted to go downstairs and move around a bit. He couldn't really call it swimming at this point; it was more like floating.

He went down one morning and changed in the small locker room. No one else was at the pool at this hour. He went to the edge and dipped his foot in. Something gray and scaly grazed his foot. He stepped back.

The pool was filled with fish, hundreds of fish swimming together in schools.

Matthew blinked, and they were gone.

He decided to skip swimming that day.

A few weeks later, Matthew talked to Dr. Blume at his office. They had finished their check-up, and Matthew decided to ask a question that had been bothering him, something he had been trying to ignore but that he couldn't manage to shake.

"What do you think about this messiah business?" he asked. "I mean, I don't feel like I'm carrying the messiah."

It seemed a silly question to ask amidst the steel instruments and cotton swabs and positive-negative tests of the medical profession.

"It's a bunch of hooey," the doctor said. "We're witnessing a medical miracle here, to be sure, but the son of God?"

"If it were," Matthew asked, "how would I know?"

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," the doctor said, giving Matthew a friendly pat on the back. "You just ignore those people. They're a bunch of nut cases who ought to be locked up."

While Matthew was getting dressed, Dr. Blume pulled Scott into another room.

"I wanted to talk to you privately," he said. "You asked me to keep you in the loop about everything."

"Of course," Scott nodded.

"We've never done this before, and I'm worried that someone could get hurt, either Matt or the baby."

"What do you mean, 'get hurt'? You mean die?"

Dr. Blume looked away. "Yes, I suppose that's what I mean. We really don't know -- "

"You're not going to let that happen, are you?" Scott said, interrupting him. "You can't let that happen."

"We're going to do our best," he said. "We've had people preparing for this for months; we've done all the research, looked into all the possibilities. But I want you to know -- just so that you're extra careful with everything -- that there's always the chance of something not working out. That would be the case with any untested procedure, and that's what we're looking at here as well."

Scott felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. There was no way he could tell Matt about this. He couldn't bear to make him any more stressed than he already was.

When they got home, Matthew asked Scott the messiah question. "I mean, this isn't just a random occurrence," Matt said. "This isn't like a warm day in the middle of the winter, or suddenly realizing that you've been getting premium cable for free!"

"Look," Scott said, "it's normal for you to be feeling doubts about this. Pregnancy brings on all sorts of forgetfulness, fear, paranoia. Maybe you're not getting enough fresh air. Have you thought about going up to the roof more often?"

"I go every day," Matthew said.

He did find himself forgetting things, not remembering if he had eaten, forgetting to take his vitamins, losing his keys. He was used to feeling pulled together, organized. Now he felt like a person whose arms had been cut off.

The next evening, Scott brought home some baby clothes. He thought it might lighten things up between them, make them hopeful, instead of fearful, about what was to come.

Matthew held up a blue jumper. It seemed huge, far bigger than whatever was growing inside of him.

"It's ugly," he said.

"Do you want me to throw you a baby shower?" Scott said, a trace of sarcasm in his voice. "Then you'll get a full selection."

"No, no, of course not," Matthew said. "I'm sorry. I'm just cranky." He knew he shouldn't be snapping at Scott, not about this, not now.

Scott snuggled up to Matthew on the couch, and Matt stroked his partner's hair. Maybe this, this thing growing inside of him, was what their life had been lacking. Sometimes, before the baby, when Scott had been working late at the restaurant and was due home any minute, Matthew would imagine that something horrible had happened to his partner. Scott had been hit by a car, or run over by the train. Matt would panic, pacing around the apartment, terrified that the entire structure of their life together was going to come crashing down. And then Scott would appear, tired but smiling, and Matt would think how silly he had been, how what he really needed was not control, but a sense of faith, of divine order, of trust. Scott would come home, he told himself. He reminded himself of this, late at night, as he rocked himself to sleep. These were the intangible truths he needed to believe in order to hold their relationship together.

Matthew's mother came the next weekend to visit him. His father had died of a heart attack two years earlier, and Matthew knew she was nervous about making the trip from suburban Chicago alone. Though they had put her up at a nearby hotel, she spent most of the weekend in the apartment, looking after Matthew.

"I never would have imagined this in a million years," she said. "Even if you were having a child with a girl, it wouldn't be like this. A mother just feels more of a connection when it's her own child having a baby."

She sat across from him and wept.

Matthew decided that he didn't want any more visitors.

A week after his mother left, Matthew woke up in the middle of the night. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he saw that a woman in a white dress was sitting at the foot of the bed.

"Just relax," she said, patting his knee.

"How did --"

"Oh, please," she said, defiantly crossing her legs, "let's not be tiresome about this."

"Aren't you supposed to have wings?"

"And get through that door?" she asked, motioning toward the entrance to the bedroom. "They don't make apartments like they used to."

Matthew nodded.

"So," she said, "you had some questions?"

"Are we doing the right thing? Is everything going to be okay?"

She looked at the ceiling, as if recalling the right answer. "I can't tell you that," she finally said. "But I will say that you're taking all this far too seriously."

"Sorry," Matthew said.

"Don't worry about it," she said. "It's not your fault. No one told you how to act."

Matthew felt faint.

"Do you have any milk?" she asked. "I'm parched."

"In the kitchen," he said.

And she was gone.

The next day, Scott went to a meeting with his lawyers on 44th Street, getting out at the Times Square subway station. He passed a soapbox preacher, a large black man who was screaming about fire and eternal damnation into his megaphone. Scott wondered why people like that wasted their time when there were so many real problems in the world.

He had gone to his lawyer to discuss custody issues.

"We both want to have custody," Scott explained. "Of course, Matthew agrees."

He would have to legally adopt the child, the firm's paternity expert told him. It would be expensive, but not impossible. As he left his lawyer's office, Scott heard the phrase over and over again in his head: I'm going to be a father. Each time it hit him, he felt a quivering in his stomach, that peculiar fear that strikes when you suddenly get the thing you believe you've always wanted. And with that, there was also the fear that it could be taken away.

The next eight weeks were difficult. Matthew grew more and more cranky, and was having trouble moving around the apartment. He had gained ten more pounds, forming a series of white stretch marks on his waist that he was sure would never disappear. He and Scott had given up altogether on the idea of sex until after the baby arrived. Though they had made several ill-fated attempts, the pain was simply too great for Matthew.

The holidays were approaching, but Matthew was unable to participate in anything. Scott hated to leave his partner alone, so he skipped most of the festivities. The two of them would sit at home, Scott nursing a glass of wine and Matthew drinking water, and try not to think about what was to come.

On the December night that Scott and their doorman Raul brought up the couple's Christmas tree, the sky was clear. Matthew stood on the balcony in his ill-fitting overcoat and scarf and looked up. It was usually impossible to see stars in New York, but tonight the sky was full of them.

They're always there, Matthew thought. We just can't see them.

The two of them assembled the Christmas tree, stringing up strands of lights and unpacking the Christmas ornaments, most of which they had purchased together. When they were done, the tree looked majestic, shimmering in the dark room. They were sorry so few people would get to see it.

On most Christmases, the two would visit one of their families together and then alternate for New Year's Eve. Due to Matthew's condition, however, they decided not to travel this year.

On Christmas Eve, the two had a quiet turkey dinner and then went to bed.

It started at midnight.

Matthew and Scott looked out their bedroom window and saw the entire street lit up with orange. Scott ran out to the deck and realized that the building next to them was on fire. Trucks were lining Central Park West and the occupants of the building were being ushered across the street toward the park.

After working near the rubble downtown, the burning smell was not unfamiliar to Scott, the heat that could permeate his respiratory system, forcing him to beg for air.

It was only when Scott ducked his head back into the living room that he heard Matthew shouting. Scott ran to the bedroom.

"It's happening," Matthew said. "I know it's happening."

There was no fluid, no blood, nothing. But Matthew knew what he was feeling inside. They grabbed the suitcase that had been packed for the past six weeks and Scott led Matthew downstairs.

The street was blocked off from traffic, so it would be impossible for them to get a cab.

Scott started to panic, but Matthew calmly pointed to a parked patrol car.

They grabbed a nearby officer and the three jumped into the car. The sirens blared, and Matthew was on his way.

They were prepared at the hospital. They had known this day was coming and they were as ready for it on Christmas Eve as they would have been a day earlier or later.

Matthew was loaded onto a gurney and wheeled into the emergency wing. Scott stayed alongside him the entire time, dressed in surgical scrubs. He made sure the two bodyguards would wait outside the emergency room. He didn't know who might be lurking around the hospital late at night.

Matthew's labor lasted two hours. The doctors timed the contractions and determined when to begin cutting Matthew open.

At 3:37 AM, the doctors delivered a baby boy by Caesarian section. Sebastian weighed seven pounds and was twenty inches from head to toe. After he had been cleaned up, after all the blood and fluid had been washed off, he looked like any other baby. No missing appendages, no missing sense organs.

Scott sighed in relief. He had imagined this evening; he thought his response would be to open a bottle of champagne. Now all he wanted to do was stay with Matthew and Sebastian.

Both of them would stay at the hospital overnight; they were transferred to a room on the eighth floor. As the orderlies moved Matthew onto his bed, Scott looked out the window. They weren't far from home, he thought. Not far at all.

Outside, the lights in the city burned bright, brighter than ever before.

Tom Dolby is the author of the widely acclaimed San Francisco Chronicle bestselling novel The Trouble Boy (Kensington Books, 2004). His nonfiction writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, and Out magazine, among others. A graduate of Yale University, Tom currently lives in Manhattan, where he is working on his second novel, which takes place at a New England boarding school. For more information, visit www.tomdolby.com.

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