Refrigerator Children by Erika D Price
Before they had a child, they spent eighteen months hashing out several of the endless dilemmas of parenting. They wanted to have an exhaustive discussion.
"What if it wants to shave its head?" the man said. “Or get a tattoo?"
The woman said, “A child should be allowed to do what it wants with its body."
"At age six? Seventeen? When?"
"Will we tell it about Santa?" he asked, as they strode through the mall one rainy afternoon.
"Adults shouldn’t hold secret knowledge over children. The child should learn how to think for itself."
"But lying to it will teach it doubt."
The woman appreciated this thought.
"Will we give it a gender?" the woman asked, on the phone with the man. She was walking past an army recruiter’s station.
"No," the man said. Then, “Wait. We’ll give it a very slight, very tenuous framework. We’ll let it know it has a choice."
A month later, when they were in a gas station, they saw a twenty-something boy buying two boxes of Lunchables and a carton of Marlboros.
"Is that some diet I haven’t heard of?" the woman asked the air.
The man nudged her and said, “Will we let our kid eat like that?"
She sneered. “We will strongly discourage it."
"A child should have control over its own body," the man retorted.
They crossed the parking lot. They wondered. What if the child hurt itself? What if it made unquestionably bad decisions?
"What if someone abuses it?" the man said. “What then?"
"Depends on the age of the child," the woman said, lifting an eyebrow. “At some point you have to let them go."
"What if it wants us to let go too early?"
"Love is not insistent," the woman said. She said it like a chime, an incantation. Like it was the answer to everything.
"Love, love is a verb," the man sang, but she didn’t seem to recognize the song, and his heart sank.
They were friends with a couple that had just gotten pregnant. A daughter. The husband was tall and pale-haired.
“When I found out it was a girl, I’ll tell ya," the husband said conspiratorially to the man, “I started cleaning my guns."
The man’s stomach churned. “You’re worrying about boys already?"
The husband squinted at a dusty television. “I’m having nightmares already, man. You know how we are. Shit, I remember what I was like at seventeen. Don’t you? But nobody’s laying a hand on my sweet girl."
His wife walked through the room with folded laundry balanced on her spreading belly. The husband gave her ass a playful slap.
Later, back home, the man asked, “How will we teach our kid about sex?”
"All the answers to everything it asks," the woman said. “Right away."
The woman sipped from a glass of water and mused, what if the child didn’t want to go to college?
"We’ll set up a trust fund and hold firm," the man answered. “Speaking of which, how long will we financially support it?"
"Long enough, but not too long," said the woman.
The man had hoped her answer would be “forever".
One evening, a year into the discussion, they were sitting on a hill eating ice cream.
“If our child killed a person," the woman said, “would you still love it?"
The man’s tongue had gone numb, but he said, “Of course. I’d be in that prison every day, visiting; I’d keep the kid’s dispensary account full to the brim. I’d be the biggest, loudest, brashest prison reformer there ever was," and he nibbled on the woman’s ear.
She laughed and said he should not assume the child would end up in prison. “I’d spring our kid out. Or put them in hiding. Fly them to Gabon. Argentina. Antarctica."
In bed, the woman’s feet were freezing and the man couldn’t sleep. He wanted to ask: what if the child ever wanted to kill itself? Or run away? To donate all its possessions and live in the woods communing with possums? What if it starved itself to itty bitty bones, and called that beauty? What if it never thanked them? What if it never loved them back? What if they looked into their child’s face and saw a runny-nosed, slack-jawed nothing, and the child looked at them and saw nothing back?
Instead, he asked, “What’s the worst thing our child could be?"
"Stupid," she said. “No. Unfree."
"Well which is it?"
The man pulled the comforter to his chin. It was now his turn to recite an incantation. “It is better to be happy than to be interesting."
He’d read it on a poster somewhere, maybe in a therapist’s office. Maybe it had been a joke. But the saying had stayed with him, slunk into the portents of his mind and calcified.
The woman said stuffily, “I think we’ll leave it for the child to decide that."
They went to sleep.
Eighteen months in, they had a fight at a friend’s wedding shower. A day later, neither of them could remember what it had been about. But it was the end. The adoption papers were thrown in the fireplace, the birth control prescription renewed. The woman moved in with her sister and the man put all his possessions in a small apartment with a view of the train yard. They felt drained in a way that flouted expression.
Sometime later, the sister asked the woman why it hadn’t worked out. She’d been privy to the endless, looping hypothetical discussions. It seemed to her the couple had everything figured out, or at least gamed out.
"It was too perfect," the woman said. “We had all the answers. No real child could live up to it.”
She smoothed her hair and looked at her reflection in the window.
“The philosophical problems were all that ever interested me about it, really."
Years after that, the man married a mechanic. He and the mechanic welcomed children into their home. They began with many ideals. No punishment. No criticism, no judgment. Never let the children see them fight. Give them snacks of whole wheat and fresh fruit; use natural shampoos and teach them all to sew, speak Spanish, wrestle, and play fair.
In time all the ideals were harshly violated. The children grew, and were corrupted, and were lost to them in various small ways. Some flourished in manners the man and the mechanic found contemptible. Some amounted to very little at all. Any flaws they saw in the children they blamed on themselves. That was what happened when you realized a dream. They cherished the fuck-ups like bubbles in hand-blown glass.
© Erika D. Price, 2015
Erika D. Price is a writer and social psychologist in Chicago. She is the author of Ohio Portraits, a Midwestern micro-memoir available in all e-reader formats, or at her blog, erikadprice.tumblr.com. In her spare time she listens to fiction podcasts like Liar's League NYC, and plays with her chinchilla, Dump Truck.
Refrigerator Children was read by Max Woertendyke, with music by Caitlin Mahoney, for the Brooklyn Book Festival on Wednesday, 13th September.