Bear of a Kid
by Joseph Edwin Haeger
“Of course we’ll think it’s cute,” he said, taking a long sip of his lite beer. The suds washed down a piece of steak.
“What?” He took another bite of steak, then took another swig a beer, letting the two sit in his mouth.
“You said ‘it.’ It is a she. You’d better get used to that quick. She’s going to be here any day.”
He swallowed the mixture in his mouth and breathed in. A smile spread across his face.
“Of course we’ll think she’s cute,” he said.
She took a sip of her seltzer. Her lips pursed, like it was sour.
“You know what I mean,” she spat the words out.
“I am. She’s going to be cute. Not a question in my mind,” he pushed his plate away and leaned his elbows on the table. He looked at her, a genuine smile brimming on his face.
“Then don’t forget I never asked the question.”
She went to sleep long before he even began to think about following her. Gestating a baby took a lot of energy she already didn’t have. They could have survived on his salary, but she wanted to get all the best baby accessories money could buy, and could he blame her? Of course he wanted what was best for the kid too, but could he really justify spending thirty dollars on a wipe warmer? Or twenty-five on a Pee Pee Teepee? These purchases seemed like luxuries unfit for their family. They were things he was going to feel embarrassed and privileged to show visitors.
He cracked open another beer and slurped the foam off the top of the can. It reminded him of when his own dad took him down to the ice cream shop and they’d drink root beer floats together. The older he got the more he wished he was a kid again. All he had to worry about then was whether he had the right vanilla to soda ratio. Life was simpler. Sweeter. And now he was even further away from being a kid. He was having a kid, and everyone knows that’s as far away from being a kid as you can get.
He took a swig that turned into a chug and finished his can of beer. He grabbed another can and cracked it open.
After this one, he thought to himself, I’ll go to bed.
There was a lot of hair.
“Oh, Jesus. That’s a lot of hair,” he said, his voice squeaked. His voice hadn’t squeaked since he was thirteen, but here he was back in the throes of puberty.
He told himself he wasn’t going to watch the baby coming out of the birth canal. He didn’t want to sound like too much of a man about it, and realized people were going to assume it was because he didn’t want his wife’s—area—to lose its sexual mystery, but it wasn’t that. He listened to people talk about the transformation that took place and that was fine. It had nothing to do with preserving his animalistic yearnings—it had to do with not opening the wad of toilet paper with the freshly-squashed spider. You don’t need to see the change to know it took place. Don’t compare the birth of your child to killing a bug, his friends told him. They didn’t understand where he was coming from.
But then, he looked down when she started pushing.
He made eye contact, and well, it was all over at that moment.
He couldn’t look away. Like a car crash.
Don’t compare the birth of your child to a car crash.
“Shut the fuck up, Rick,” he muttered to himself while he held her leg up, acting as a human stirrup.
“What was that, daddy?” the doctor looked up at him.
“Uh,” he was too far into his own head. Sure, he was watching the birth with a front row seat, but he hadn’t realized he was talking to himself. “I was just saying, that’s a lot of hair coming out of there. Will that, uh, cause any problems?”
“Every baby is different,” the doctor turned her attention back to his wife. “Here comes another contraction, and…” she paused. “Push!”
His wife’s scream tore through the sanitized room. The din echoed around the clean counters, bouncing into his ears. He did this to her. This was his fault. He knew all the blame didn’t fall on him—she had her own portion of the responsibility, but it was him that prodded her night after night with his urges. Hell, it was probably one of the nights where she wanted to get it over with so she could fall asleep that caused this all to happen.
“Leg!” the doctor yelled at him, bringing him back to the moment. “Pull that leg back up!”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry,” he brought her leg up further on his chest.
This was what she wanted. She told him that.
“One more push and baby is going to be in the world!” the doctor encouraged her.
One more push and his life was going to be forever altered. A change plainly seen.
The baby slid out, revealing more and more hair. Every baby was different, he heard the OBGYN repeat in his head. You couldn’t expect the Gerber baby, especially with a natural birth. It was a lot of work pushing a baby through the little opening and everyone was going to be a little beat up afterwards. Just hope for a healthy child and go from there, they had said.
But that was a lot of hair. More than the normal baby—there is no normal baby.
A spurt of amniotic fluid splashed onto the white sheet, marking it with the event. The doctor held the baby. He looked down at the two of them; it looked almost natural except for the hair. And the snout. That wasn’t normal—and he meant in the grand scheme of children. What the doctor held was not a child, but a cub.
It was a grizzly bear.
Someone shoved scissors into his hands.
“Time to cut the umbilical cord,” they clapped him on the back. It was a congratulatory move, but also a way to get him moving. He couldn’t take his eyes away from the thing that escaped his wife. This was something he wouldn’t have believed had he not been there to witness it himself. “The umbilical cord, daddy!”
He shook his head and clipped the rubbery cord they had pulled taut in front of him.
The cub started to cry. It was hoarse and rough. More of a call than a cry.
“Sometimes there’s still some amniotic fluid in the lungs. She’ll clear it out soon and will be sleeping like a baby,” the doctor smiled up at him. “You’ve got yourself a beautiful baby girl.”
They were able to go back home after the mandatory twenty-four hours at the hospital. He changed the first diaper, but the poop was like a black tar matted to the fur and the wipes didn’t seem to help get any of it off. The nurse rushed in and pushed him aside, lifted the cub up by her legs and swiped a few times with a single wipe, then wrapped a brand new diaper around the baby. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it. I’m impressed you even tried.
He didn’t want to say anything to his wife while they were in the hospital. It was going to be a fight, he knew. The door wasn’t even closed when he started talking at her.
“You know,” he started. “I’m not a bear.”
“I’m not a bear so…what the fuck?”
“What are you even talking about.”
“Look at it. You think that looks like me?”
“Don’t call her an ‘it.’”
“I’m sorry, but do you really think I’m just going to ignore the fact that you pushed a bear out of you.”
“I’m going to bed,” she turned away from him.
“It’s three in the afternoon,” he looked down at his watch. “Well, 3:07, but the sentiment stands.”
“I’m tired. I just shoved a baby out my vagina and don’t really feel like being accused of utter nonsense.”
“Of sleeping with a bear,” he laughed, but the noise got cut in his throat. “How does someone even do that?”
“Goodnight. Good luck on the couch.”
She unstrapped the baby from the car seat and carried her toward their room. Her feet soundless on the carpeted stairs.
How many times could he accuse her before she left, he wondered. And while his sense of despair lessened every time he comforted the bear cub in the middle of the night—hoping and praying she’d fall back to sleep—there were the moments when blood soaked through her nursing bra. Weren’t those things made to be thick enough to soak and trap a heavy flow of milk? Was blood that much thicker? Or how hard was his bear cub daughter biting his wife’s nipples? They hadn’t had much fun—in the carnal sense—since the birth; that’s to say zero fun because she wouldn’t let him near her. For all he knew, the bear had gnawed her nipples clean off. She had these glimmering teeth at birth, and they were only going to get longer and sharper. Yet, his wife paid no mind to these traits. When the baby called she answered with an available boob. He couldn’t help but admire her commitment as a mother. He was sure the feeling wasn’t reciprocated. Being a mother seemed to come so naturally to her. He was jealous, really. He’d read nervous accounts of women, afraid they didn’t have the motherly instincts, but the moment they saw their babies it all clicked into place for them. He figured it’d work the same for the father. But he was still waiting for it all to click into place; for that innate spirit to wash over him so he could call her “daughter” without thinking of the alternatives. His wife refused to show even the slightest crack of opportunity to pursue his allegations anyway. He had no openings to push the argument because like she said that first night—she wasn’t having that conversation. He could either accept that, or not. It was so much easier to take her confidence as the answer he needed.
The first year went by like a walking dream. One where no one seemed to want to engage with him. He didn’t bother trying to reach out, but she was somehow able to sustain her friendships. It helped that her friends had kids. Normal kids that didn’t start tearing their homes apart when they pulled themselves up on furniture to walk around the perimeters of the rooms. When these children’s teeth came in there wasn’t a worry that someone was going to have to get rushed to the hospital.
“It was an accident,” his wife had said. “Besides, why are you swiping a finger in there anyway? She has teeth now.”
Now—Christ, she’s had them since the moment she came out.
But teeth or no teeth, that was too big of a graham cracker bite.
All her friends brought their little ones over for the bear’s first birthday party. His parents came and somehow took her side, not even beginning to acknowledge the bear in the high chair. No, they fawned over the animal, pinching her cheeks and tickling her under her arms. The noise she made when she laughed—it was horrendous. It got worse as she got older. I was a mating call through a foghorn but, of course, his wife gave him a too-hard of a pinch in the back of the arm, whispering that he had no right to sexualize his little baby girl.
“Goddamn, are we hearing the same noise?”
He was shotgunning a beer in the kitchen when he heard the crowd beginning the opening lines of “Happy Birthday.” He wondered if he’d be able to slam another can down before the end of the song, and while he could have, he decided against it. He was already going to hear about missing the beginning of the song from his wife.
Well, shit, he thought, pausing in the middle of the kitchen. If he was going to be getting an ear full anyway then why not make the lecture worth it. He opened the fridge, the cans clinking together in the door. He pulled one out and punctured the side with his wife’s good paring knife. The foam bubbled out of the hole and he put the can to his mouth, popping the top and inhaling the beer like it was as natural as breathing.
They all sang out the bear’s name. His daughter’s name.
He dropped the can under the sink and swaggered into the dining room.
There, on her high chair tray, right in front of her, was a double-decker chocolate cake with double-fudge frosting. She used her nostrils, covered in a thick slimy saliva, to snort out the single candle flame. Then opened her mouth wide to dive into the cake. Her pointed teeth gleamed under the light from the overhead lamp.
“Ah, Jesus! You can’t give it sugar!” he took a big step toward the bear. “It’ll go crazy!”
Before he had the chance to take another step his wife pinched him hard on the back of the arm.
“Would you please follow me into the kitchen?” she said, her teeth touching the entire sentence.
He looked back at the high chair. Frosting was matting the fur. It was going to be a three-wash bath tonight, even if she cooperated and sat still. She’d been getting better, but the moment she had a modicum of sugar it was a trip to Target to replace sheets or curtains or clothing.
His wife pulled him into the kitchen.
“This is your little girl’s first birthday.”
“Yeah, and I want her to enjoy it,” he wanted to know how much cake they were letting her eat. Was anyone other than him going to cut her off?
“Cut it with the ‘It’ shit,” she breezed past him. He heard her tone change the moment she crossed the threshold into the dining room. He was jealous of how easily she could put on the masquerade that everything was fine. As if they were the perfect family.
He didn’t know how to square the facts he wanted to give his daughter everything she wanted, but also withhold enough to cultivate a sense of gratitude in her. He wanted her to appreciate things in life and not fall victim to expecting everything. He wanted her to work for things and feel a sense of pride when she earned the things she wanted. From toys to food to love. She needed to have a sense of grace, otherwise she’d never be in control of her own happiness. But he also wanted to make her happy by spoiling her. He wanted to see her light up at the sight of a new and unnecessary toy. Sure, she didn’t smile per se, but she made this honking noise that sounded kind of like a laugh when she was happy. His heart lifted when he came home with a six pack for him and a new stuffed animal for her and she ran in circles honking and hugging the new toy.
Giving her this stuff made him feel closer to the father he thought he’d be.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” The front door wasn’t even shut yet.
“Are we so bad that you have to stop at the liquor store every single night to restock? At least save some money and buy a thirty-six pack.”
“Was I so bad you had to escape to the woods?”
“That’s right,” she took the beer from him. “If you bought more than six you’d be too hungover the next day. It’s your mission to finish whatever you bring home.”
“And now I’m here to deal with your mistake.”
She disappeared to the kitchen to put his sixer into the fridge.
The bear cub toddled around the corner. He couldn’t ever figure out if she was happy to see him. He crouched down and watched her hold her new stuffed dolphin a little closer. His wife didn’t realize his stop wasn’t the liquor store—it was the grocery store. He stopped there because they had beer and a small section of toys. Sure, there were only a few animals to choose from, but it’s not like the cub cared if he made repeats. A lot of them needed to be replaced anyway.
She edged up to him, holding out the stuffed animal. Her pajamas were tight around her stomach and legs and neck. He noticed the collar wasn’t buttoned, but an oversized safety pin kept it closed. They almost couldn’t keep up with the growth spurts. The days were long and the years short, and all the other clichés turned out to be true. He leaned over and gave the dolphin a kiss on the head, then gave the bear a kiss on her forehead. Her hair prickled against his lips, but at least it was clean.
“You guys eat?”
“Is there any left?”
“No,” she came out of the kitchen. “I’m sorry. I’m tense and can’t ever figure out how much she’s going to eat. She’s our growing little girl.” She handed him a beer, already opened.
“It’s okay. I’m fine with canned soup.”
“Honey,” her voice dropped. “I think you may be drinking too much.”
He took a long pull from the can. Nearly half of it.
“I can’t help it. It’s hard to come home, almost forgetting what my supposed daughter looks like, and then being faced with that.” He gestured with the can.
“She’s not dumb. She can understand you, so don’t…” his wife looked back, but their daughter was sitting cross-legged, surrounded by the fluffy white stuffing from the dolphin. The discarded skin of the animal lay dead and forgotten. She shoved pawfuls of cotton into her mouth. “Oh honey, don’t eat that.”
He took another long drink from his beer.
“Watch your fingers.”
“Watch your fucking mouth.”
“You need any help here? Otherwise I’m going to take a shower.”
“Take your shower,” she picked up the cub and walked into her room.
They’d both be asleep by the time he got out of the shower and he’d be able to finish his beers in peace. Maybe there was a ballgame on that he could ignore while he sucked down the suds.
He wanted to love them both. He really did.
Being a dad was a choice.
It took three years for him to stop bringing up his daughter’s appearance. His wife wasn’t going to entertain him in the conversation he yearned for, and he couldn’t help but feel like that was a good sign. She wasn’t hiding anything, so she wasn’t willing to consider the accusation. The whole thing seemed ridiculous—and it was. How would someone even begin the process of having sex with a fully grown grizzly bear? No wonder she refused to talk about it.
He gave up on looking for a different truth. Like the OBGYN said, every baby was different. You just have to hope for a healthy child and go from there.
He cracked open another lite beer. He had started leaving the recycling bin in the backyard so he didn’t have to walk all the way to the alley to throw away the can. His little girl picked up the baseball and tried to throw it to him. She tucked her elbow into her rib cage and pushed the ball out in front of her.
“Good try, honey,” he took a big swig and swallowed. The carbonation tickled his throat. He took a big breath after the beer bubbled in his stomach. “But you need to lift your elbow. Keep your elbow raised, and swivel your hips when you throw. Like this.” He turned his torso and felt like a cheap plastic toy from the nineties. His arm was up and he pantomimed the motion over and over, hoping she was going to see the difference in what he was doing and what she was doing. He put the can to his lips and emptied the rest of the beer into his mouth. He swished it around like it was a fine wine or mouthwash, then swallowed. He opened the blue recycling bin, tossed the can in, and didn’t feel any bit of shame when the sound of aluminum on aluminum greeted the new addition. He reached into the red and white cooler sitting in the shade and pulled out a brand new can of lite beer. He cracked the top open.
“Did you see the difference?” He rolled the baseball back to his daughter. “Try again.”
She picked up the ball. Her claws scraped against the baseball’s skin. It was going to get shredded, like the rest of them. She hadn’t mastered the fine motor skills to not destroy things yet, but she was getting there. Parenting was a process, and he knew patience was the key for any adult to survive the daily grind of raising kids.
She looked at him and smiled—or he thought she smiled. It was still hard for him to tell with the way her snout stuck out. He thought she looked silly in a purple summer dress, the hair shooting out from the collar and sleeves, but he wasn’t about to say anything to her mom. He avoided fights in the same way she did these days. They were a happy family now.
She tucked her elbow into her rib cage and tried to throw it, but it landed a few feet in front of her and rolled to a stop.
“Good try, honey!” He drank half the beer in one go. He took a few steps forward and picked up the ball. “Let’s try again.”
Joseph Edwin Haeger is the author of Learn to Swim (University of Hell Press, 2015). His works has appeared in The Inlander, Drunk Monkeys, The Big Smoke, and others. He’s currently cooped up in his office, surrounded by books he probably won’t ever read. He tells people his favorite movie is Face/Off as a litmus test, but there’s a part of him that’s afraid it’s true.