Summer 2021 - Fiction

Cortney Phillips Meriwether

Punch Baby

 

Like all responsible first-time parents, we discussed the punches before Reid was even born. The government-issued card would arrive on his first birthday, a list of instructions typed out above the perforated edge, and we wanted to be prepared.

Punches are to be used by parents or legal guardians only. Every citizen is entitled to seven free punches. Additional punches can be purchased at memorykeeper.gov. Card becomes invalid upon the death of the child.

We watched the videos online to prepare. We saw the teenagers slamming doors, saw how the exasperated parents made knowing eye contact before using a silver hand-held punch to clip a hole through the card. How they blinked, and their ornery teenagers transformed back into a wiggly newborn for exactly one hour. How they smiled at each other and smelled the baby’s head and uncurled their spindly fingers and marveled at the barely-there weight of them. The program promised: sixty minutes was just enough to reexperience the joy, without the sleepless nights and the chapped nipples and the wide-mouthed-red-faced screams.

As excited as we were, it was also a little intimidating, especially as first-time parents, so we asked some of our friends how they were handling it. I remembered being surprised to learn that Blair and her wife were planning to use all seven punches in the first five years. After that, it would just feel too much like stealing hours from their daughters, she said. They wouldn’t feel right about it, especially as the girls got old enough to realize what was happening. I rolled my eyes when I told Wyatt later. “It’s only once they get older that it gets really good,” I said dismissively. “You have to let time pass to really appreciate it, right?”

Initially, Wyatt wanted to designate specific milestones in advance, arguing that creating a schedule would eliminate temptation. I thought that would feel limiting. “Can’t we just use them when we feel like it?” I said, palm resting on my belly, still waiting to feel the first movement. So, we compromised; we’d save four punches for milestones—the first birthday, the first day of kindergarten, his thirteenth birthday, and high school graduation—and use three spontaneously. That would allow us to space them out, while still having some flexibility. It was a good plan. We both thought so.

Wyatt’s mother was, of course, opposed to the concept of punches entirely—with her online message boards and marches, holding posterboards with “DON’T PUNCH, STAY PRESENT” written in big red letters. She was even part of the group that lobbied for the “Opt-Out at 18” Bill to get passed. The Thanksgiving I was pregnant was the worst of it—she gave a lengthy diatribe before Wyatt had even finished slicing the turkey, all about how the whole system was decidedly unfair to the children and only served to feed unhealthy nostalgia. It was irresponsible parenting, she told me, even if it’s for only an hour. “It’s technology that’s meant to be used, Cheryl,” I said for the dozenth time. “I bet you’d feel differently if you could use it on Wyatt.”

Unsurprisingly, my parents were the opposite. My mother sat next to me at my baby shower, hands clasped proudly in her lap, while I opened her present and the card with one additional gifted punch fell out. The other guests tittered while I protested—this was too much, she shouldn’t have done this. She placed a solemn hand on my belly. “All we ask is that your father and I get to be there when you use it,” she said.

And, look—for the first two punches we used, it went exactly as I thought it would. We used one the day the card arrived, after the birthday guests went home. It was just the three of us. Reid was newly walking, his stubby baby legs stretching into something grown, propelling him around the room like the rest of him couldn’t catch up. There was still red frosting crusted in his hair from when he’d shoved his fists into his Elmo cake, but we hadn’t wanted to wait until after bath time. “Ready?” I said to Wyatt, then clicked the hole punch.

I expected morphing, but it was just like the videos—a blink, and then there he was. Bald, newborn Reid, lying on his back and kicking his legs, his thin baby lips curled into an O. I picked him up and let him sink into my chest. Felt the thin skin of his peach-fuzzed head against my cheek. Held the entire weight of him in my palm. It was both familiar and far away. I looked up at Wyatt and, I swear, he had tears in his eyes. We laughed and swayed together. It was magic, truly.

We waited four more years to use another. The card went untouched until the second milestone arrived: the night before his first day of kindergarten. All day I felt giddy, knowing what was to come. So much more time had passed this time around; his babyhood was a fainter and fainter memory. That night, we tucked him in, kissed his damp hair, then punched it. Marveling over his smallness, we spent the entire hour reminiscing, congratulating ourselves on how great he was turning out. It was exactly the moment it was supposed to be. Wyatt thought so, too. I know he did. Even though, at one point, he looked up from Reid’s little body in his arms and twisted his mouth sideways, like he had something to say and wasn’t sure if he should say it.

“What?” I asked. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Reid’s earlobes. Who had ever seen such tiny, soft earlobes?

“I was just thinking.” Wyatt stroked one finger down a plump baby cheek. “Is he getting old enough that we should—I don’t know—ask permission or something?”

“Oh, come on,” I said. “He’s still practically a toddler. He thinks if he eats enough peas that he’ll gain super powers.”

“Well, sure. But maybe before the next one.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said.

 

*

 

It wasn’t long after that public opinion started to shift. The exciting newness of the technology was wearing off, so it was only natural that criticism started to come out. And with the first generation of punch babies nearing legal age, the program was suddenly all the media seemed to talk about. Clear lines were drawn between sides. Obviously, everyone agreed on some regulations, or at least came around after they passed. Take me, for example. I initially thought the “Opt-Out at 18” clause was ridiculous, but even I eventually admitted that it made a lot of sense. The program needed to account for children who didn’t have open, honest relationships with their parents. It was only fair to grant them a choice once they entered adulthood. Besides, it still allowed for the option to punch after 18—your child just had to consent. I imagined adult Reid buying me a punch as a Mother’s Day gift one year. I just knew he’d be thoughtful like that.

But then everyone in the country started talking about Jake Bollinger, the high school junior whose parents took out a second mortgage to buy three dozen extra punches—at $1,200 a pop—and who was now suing for emancipation, two years before he was eligible for the “Opt-Out at 18” clause. We’d all seen the interview where he explained how the last straw was when his parents used a punch while he was with his girlfriend, his cheeks pinking as he looked at his feet.

Then the other side came out with Tillie Greenwald, her eight-year-old body barely hanging on against the leukemia, and the GoFundMe money poured in for her parents to buy extra punches, allowing them to spend hour after hour with their once-healthy baby while they still could. “See?” I said to Wyatt after pushing the button to donate $20. “What a gift—can you even imagine?”

Now, I would never argue that what happened to the Anderson girl wasn’t tragic. It absolutely was. For weeks, the daughter’s senior picture flashed on the news, her foot propped on a soccer ball, her red jersey hiding a nearly grown woman’s figure. Her parents looked just dumbfounded, holding the baby girl in their arms and talking about crib shopping again. But it was also such an isolated incident. There weren’t any other cases of a punch not wearing off. It was an incredibly difficult thing that happened, everyone thought so, but that shouldn’t ruin it for everyone else.

Of course, it should also go without being said that I was obviously against the predatory lending practices that led to that class action suit. I’ve never said it was a perfect system. Some people were always going to take advantage of it, like anything else. It made me sick to think of those poor parents, suckered into taking out those loans, just to buy more punches. It was things like that that made me think the “Cap It At Ten” bill wasn’t such a bad idea. And really, shouldn’t ten punches be enough for all of us? Especially if you planned ahead and spread them out. The whole point was that it was special.

Anyway, what it all boiled down to was that I should have seen it coming. I just didn’t want to.

 

*

 

It was around Reid’s eighth birthday that I realized Wyatt was shifting away.

One afternoon, I swung by the grocery store on my way to pick up Reid from school. We only needed a few things—just peanut butter and eggs, or maybe milk, I don’t quite remember. But I had time to kill, so I wandered a little bit, strolling through the prepared foods section and debating just buying a take-and-bake pizza for dinner that night. There was a woman, maybe late-twenties, with a baby strapped to her chest in one of those cozy slings that are meant to mimic the womb. She cupped the bundle with one arm and pushed the cart with the other, bouncing a little as she walked.

“What a sweetheart,” I said, angling to get a peek into the sling. “Enjoy it—it goes so fast.”

She grinned back at me and bent forward, holding the sling open. “Oh, trust me, I know. She’s actually five, but it feels like going on fifteen sometimes.” She told me how wearing her baby and grocery shopping was one of her strongest memory of those hazy early days, so she wanted to relieve it.

Later that evening, I told Wyatt about the interaction. “Isn’t that so sweet?” I said. “I’ve never thought to actually do anything when we use a punch. Remind me to get out one of the baby carriers next time and wear Reid. Remember how much I loved doing that when he was so tiny?”

I kept telling him about how happy the woman looked as I slid the pizza into the oven. I really felt energized in the moment. “Maybe this is even a sign that it’s time to use a spontaneous punch—this weekend maybe?” I said. “After his soccer game? What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” Wyatt said. “I’ve just been feeling a bit weird about all of it lately, you know?”

“All of what?”

“The punches. I don’t know. The older he gets, the weirder it seems, I guess.” He kept his back to me, knife moving through romaine. I could hear the echo of Reid’s video games from down the hall.

“Has your mom been talking to you about this again? I thought we told her that we needed her to respect our parenting choices—"

“We’ve just never really talked to him about it. Like don’t you think he’s old enough that we should discuss what would happen? What it all means?”

“Well, sure,” I said. “Of course, totally. You’re right. We should talk to him about it.”

But then we did—and it didn’t go very well. I tried explaining it in the most basic of terms, really I did, but Reid just couldn’t wrap his head around it. He got more and more worked up the more I talked, and Wyatt wasn’t any help. It ended with me stroking Reid’s hair and shushing while he whimpered, I’m not a baby I don’t want to be a baby please don’t make me a baby.

“So, that settles it,” Wyatt said, after we finally got Reid to sleep and assumed our nightly kitchen clean-up routine.

“Oh, he was just in a mood. He’ll get over it. Besides, they say kids don’t ever have any memory of punches. We couldn’t probably still do it without him even noticing, no harm, no foul.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“What? You think we should let our eight-year-old make this decision?” I dried my hands on a dish towel and tossed it, crumpled, onto the counter. “Come on, Wyatt.”

It turned out that was exactly what he thought. What followed was one of our biggest fights ever, whisper screaming at each other from across the kitchen island, with Wyatt hissing words like ethical and consent at me. He cited studies that had been done on kids born in 2003—the first year of punch babies—and how they were found to have lower confidence and shakier relationships with their parents as a result. Think about it, he said. There just isn’t a way to regulate it that protects everyone. And could we really just trust every parent to act in the best interest of their kids? No, he said. Of course we couldn’t. Plus, with all the negative press, the program might not even exist much longer, he said.

“Even if the program does get cut, someone will privatize it,” I said. “There’s too much money there for it to just go away completely.”

Wyatt looked at me sadly. “You’re missing the point,” he said.

I felt momentarily crazy. Maybe I was. He was just being so calm, so logical about something so emotional. “Look,” I said. “We don’t have to decide anything tonight. Let’s just keep talking about it, okay?

I smiled encouragingly. Crossed the kitchen and rubbed his back. Told him I’d finish cleaning up so he could go relax. We’ll figure this out, I told him.

 

*

 

And maybe everything would have been fine if I hadn’t used a punch without telling him.

I didn’t plan it. Reid and I were just having a really good day together, and I was feeling very sappy about being his mother. This little human, this totally formed boy—with his own opinions and interests and ways of communicating—and I grew him in my own body. It was just one of those moments where it felt so beautiful and overwhelming. Like an experience completely unique to us, even though it was the most universal thing. And I just wanted to remember, to reflect. Just for a little bit.

I didn’t expect it to be so nice to have him all to myself. To not have to pass him back and forth. Just me and my baby, the way it was for most of his first days. I even did the thing I could never do the previous two punches with Wyatt there and held Reid’s little baby mouth up to my breast, just to see if he would suckle. It wasn’t the same, not like I remembered at all, but for a very brief moment, I could pretend.

I told myself that Wyatt didn’t even know if he wanted to use the punch program anymore anyway. We still had five left, so it wasn’t like I used the last one. I also figured that he probably wouldn’t even realize it, at least for a long time.

When I heard the garage door shudder, there were only ten minutes left in the hour. He’d had a house showing that morning, then said he planned to go to the agency for a while that afternoon. I hadn’t expected him home for at least a few more hours.

And what was there to say? He knew exactly what had happened when he saw us. It wasn’t like I could deny it.

 

*

 

Two days later, I came downstairs after putting Reid to sleep. Aside from basic parenting essentials, Wyatt and I had barely spoken—not since he came home to find me rocking our baby, pausing in the doorway and opening his mouth like he was about to yell, before turning and walking away. “It’s not what you think,” I’d said later that night, even though it was. But Wyatt had just held up his hands and left the room.

That night, I was determined to make things better. To get us back on the same page. This was all just a ridiculous misunderstanding. He’d had legitimate concerns and, rather than helping him work through them, I’d felt threatened and acted rashly. I’d apologize. We’d make a better plan that allowed us to move forward, just us—not his mother, not our friends, not the pundits.

“I think we should talk about this,” I said, taking a seat at the kitchen island. “I owe you an apology.”

Wyatt closed the dishwasher gently, then carefully removed the kitchen towel from his shoulder. “I’ve been thinking, too. And I don’t think we can willingly participate in the punch program with everything we know now, and with Reid’s best interest in mind. I think we need to end it.”

“What are you even saying?” I tried to keep the panic out of my voice. “You just want Reid to grow up and that be the end of it? You don’t ever want to hold him as a baby again? You want right now to be the smallest he’ll ever be—forever?”

“It’s just not right. Surely you can see that.”

“Don’t do that, come on. It’s harmless in the right hands, you know that.” I steadied my voice. “But I get what you’re saying, really I do. We’ll be more thoughtful about it. We can get through this.”

Wyatt swallowed so hard that I could see his throat jump from across the room. His eyes went to the drawer in the little kitchen desk, the one where we kept our card with its five remaining punches. “I don’t think we can,” he said.

I looked to the drawer too, then back to Wyatt’s face. He looked away and shook his head. I thought of Reid, eight years old and suddenly all limbs, asleep down the hall. What did you do, Wyatt, I said. What did you do. Lost or destroyed cards couldn’t be replaced, I reminded him. Can’t you see? It would cost us, I said. It would cost us.


Cortney Phillips Meriwether received her MFA in Creative Writing from NC State in 2012 and has been working as a writer and editor ever since. Her work has been published by Wigleaf, CHEAP POP, Monkeybicycle, Lost Balloon, and others. She serves as a reader for Fractured Lit and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with her husband and sons.


 

This project is partially supported by the Illinois Arts Council

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