Hypothetical Child


-Sample essay from No Permanent Scars.

          My wife, Stacie, has lost all naming privileges. I’d already made that mistake with the dog. We were driving home from the city pound, our new German shepherd mix sitting contently on Stacie’s lap, when I agreed that she should choose the pup’s name. After all, she’d wanted to bring home the dog’s brother—a slightly tanner version of our pooch. I insisted on picking a female, because as a child I remembered my dad explaining that girl dogs don’t raise their legs to pee and therefore don’t kill the shrubs in the backyard. Since I was emphatic about selecting the female, it only seemed fair that Stacie, an equal partner in our relationship, retained naming rights. After twenty minutes of deliberation she announced, “Cherry.” I bit my lip. “We’ll name her Cherry, because she has this red collar against her black fur. She looks like a little chocolate covered cherry.” She buried her nose in the dog’s fur—in Cherry’s fur—and began speaking in high-pitched baby talk. “You’re our little chocolate covered cherry, aren’t you?”
          It would have been a heartless move to question her choice at that juncture. I repressed my silent pleas for a less effeminate name, but held out hope that I could introduce a tougher nickname when Stacie wasn’t paying attention. (That plan somehow failed as well; the family now affectionately refers to Cherry as “Smooch McGooch,” which is in no way a step in the right direction.) When my male friends inquired about the dog’s name, I quietly mumbled “Cherry,” which was met with hysterical laughter and jeers about the “fruity” name.
          The only sense of justice I felt in the naming debacle occurred after we brought our little cherry cordial to my parents’ home, where we lived for two months before purchasing our own home, and Cherry’s temperament quickly changed from a sleepy, obedient angel to a holy terror. The second night in the house she proceeded to exhibit the deepest, nastiest growl I’d ever heard rumble forth from a puppy’s throat. She chewed through a plastic baby gate, pulled an overstuffed lounge chair from one end of the basement to the other before tearing it into shreds, climbed my parents’ basement stairs and ate through the ceiling tile adjacent to the steps, and gnawed their banister into a perfect spear. Suddenly the name “Cherry” didn’t quite seem to fit our furry anti-Christ. Although she did develop into a passionate, deeply loving dog, she will kill anything with a tail. It’s a tad awkward to be shouting across the backyard, “Cherry! Cherry! Quit shaking that squirrel/ rabbit/ mouse/ chipmunk/ groundhog/ skunk/ cat/ family of opossums and get over here. Dammit Cherry! Stacie, grab a garbage bag and I’ll get a shovel; Cherry got another one.” A name like Cerberus or Tank would have been more fitting. The guy down the street named his Great Dane Helmet. I secretly wanted to name her Wolverine—after the animal, but more so after the X-Men comic book character that tore his enemies into bloody ribbons with metal claws that protracted from his hands. That seemed a more appropriate name for a dog that loves to shake animals until their backs break.
          Due to Stacie’s subpar name for our dog, there was no way I was going to give her unrestricted carte blanche in naming our child. The child naming pursuit is a recent development. When Stacie and I met in college, I explained on our first date that my life goal was to get married and have a child; she swore she’d never marry or even consider the possibility of birthing children. Three years later I convinced her to marry me, while she showed me the benefits of zero parental responsibilities, especially with our hectic professional and personal schedules.
          At my previous place of employment, where I was one of two men amongst a stormy sea of women, I casually mentioned one afternoon during lunch that Stacie and I may not have children. Karen, one of the part-time data entry secretaries, informed me I was a “selfish piece of shit.”
          I didn’t quite comprehend how not wanting a child necessarily translated into my being a chunk of feces. In fact, I believed we were making the morally responsible decision by not introducing a child into this world and then proceeding to ignore it in order to tend to other more pressing responsibilities—a scenario played out by many of today’s active parents. Karen herself would complain about her kids several times a week.
          “Not bringing a child into this world,” she explained, “just further confirms that you only care about yourself. Being a parent is all about sacrifices, and you don’t seem to want to make any of those sacrifices.”
          “Exactly,” I said. We were in complete agreement. Stress and sacrifice were the two primary reasons Stacie and I were unsure if we wanted a child. We were satisfied with one another’s company. We had no immediate desire to muck that up.
          And that’s how it remained for the first five years of our marriage—we reveled in our solitude, never once broaching the topic of parenting. Life was peaceful and predictable. Smooth sailing. Carefree. Happy times. Easy street.
          And then my wife turned thirty.
          I’d heard of this elusive biological clock, but assumed Stacie’s had never been wound, or maybe she never had hers reset during that whole Y2K fiasco. I imagined Stacie’s “timer” more resembled a biological lump of cement that hardened with each passing year. But as her thirtieth birthday approached, Stacie began mentioning the prospect of having a child. She never came right out and said, I’d like to be a mother. Instead she took a more passive approach, asking me whether or not I preferred certain names. We’d be reading on our porch swing when she’d say, “What do you think of the name Julian?” Being the respectable male that I am, I ignored her question and continued reading. “Mike,” she repeated, “do you like that name or not?”
          “Do I like that name? What’s the context for a question like that?” I asked. “It depends what I’m naming. Julian seems like a fine name for a cat or a cactus. Is that what you’re asking—is Julian a good name for a cactus?”
          Exchanges such as these took place often, as I repeatedly disregarded her name inquiries. We were both just beginning our teaching careers and attempting to obtain our master’s degrees. Our college loans left us thousands of dollars in debt, so I had no mental capacity to assume one more responsibility—especially the responsibility of parenting. I promptly responded to each proposed name with absolutely no reaction whatsoever. Name after name after name, I’d stare off into nothingness, blocking out the voice that pushed me toward responsibility.
          Until she asked, “What about Lilly Joy?”
          We were eating dinner when she proposed “Lilly Joy.” I set down my fork, looked up from my plate to Stacie, and asked, “Let’s clear something up, are we having a kid or not?”
          “I don’t know,” she said, smiling. “But I’m glad you brought it up. Lately I’ve been thinking I’d like a little one.”
          “You realize,” I said, “that little one will eventually become a middle school kid who hates us, and then a high school kid who will make horrible choices, wants to stay out all night doing God knows what with his friends, and then sucks every imaginable dime from our bank account only to reject everything we’ve taught him and become a staunch, right-wing, meat-eating Republican. You’ve thought of that, haven’t you?”
          “No,” she said, playing with the food on her plate. “But I have thought that someday your folks will be gone, and Thanksgiving will be awfully lonely by ourselves.”
          I hadn’t considered that. My parents, who are admittedly our best friends, live in the house directly behind ours. Stacie and my mom spend the summer afternoons shopping and quilting, while my dad and I sit in front of a computer screen for hours learning new video editing software. Both of Stacie’s parents died of cancer when she was in her early twenties, and the rest of her family is dispersed around the country. In our daily bliss, I’d never even considered that some day my parents would be gone. Then the only difference between Thanksgiving and a typical Monday night dinner would be more extravagant meal choices.
          “But we can’t just have a kid to make sure we’re not lonely, can we?” I asked. “That doesn’t seem like the right reason. I mean, our kids could move far away from us and not come home for the holidays.”
          “But they could call,” she said.
          I moved the food around on my plate.
          “Don’t you ever want to be part of it? Just a little bit? When I first met you, you swore that’s all you wanted in life. You said that would make you truly happy.”
          “It’s not going to be named Lilly Joy, that’s for damn sure,” I said.
          Stacie smiled.
          “Then what do you want to name our kid?”
          “Wait, you’re not going to trick me into this that easily. Are we having a kid or what?”
          “I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet. And this shouldn’t just be my decision. I want you to want a kid, too. So, let me rephrase the question for now: What do you want to name our hypotheticalchild?”
          And with that conversation, we agreed to have a hypothetical child. I enjoyed the idea of the little nonentity not crawling around in a hypothetical playpen and not taking walks on hypothetical family outings. Of course, at some point we’d have to meet, sketch out a timeline, take a vote, and if a quorum was met, discuss the next steps in allowing the hypothetical child to manifest itself in the flesh. But, for the time being, we were satisfied with the concept of a hypothetical child. We’d ring out names on car rides or while pushing the cart around the grocery store.
          Despite the seemingly lax nature of this “fun” game, it was actually bound to a series of structured rules that all participants were forced to adhere to. First, any names agreed upon must remain confidential. We didn’t want to run the risk of family members and friends telling us how ghastly our name choices were or mentioning the rhymes that elementary school kids would make out of the name. Second, all names remained hypothetical. There was never to be any sort of tangible evidence of the naming process. Finally, and most importantly, each party (my wife and me) had unopposed veto rights on any suggested name. It was known throughout the land (our house) as the veto clause. If a name repulsed the other, the name was immediately rejected and was never to be mentioned again. I immediately vetoed “Lilly Joy.”
          For the next year we debated the name of our hypothetical child. Stacie did most of the naming, and I did most of the vetoing. For some time between March and July, when Stacie spent much of her day watering the flowers in the yard, she grew obsessed with garden-themed names. “Lilly Joy” was already out. I proceeded to veto Rose, Chrysanthemum, Daisy, Violet, Azalea, and Lavender.
          “Why not name our hypothetical child Garden to cover the whole gambit?” I suggested. “Or maybe Thyme or Oregano?” I was smacked.
          I did allow one botanical name to slip through: Hyacinth. The Hyacinth concession was a direct result of Stacie’s sheer nagging persistence. After mocking the selection, Stacie grew defensive, ignoring the veto rules firmly established at the onset of this process. The situation grew so dire that on Mother’s Day I found a hand-made card on the kitchen table with a flower crayoned on the front. Inside it read, “Mommy, don’t listen to the bad man. You’re my favorite. I love you more than Daddy. Love, your favorite hypothetical child, Hyacinth.” Like the day we brought Cherry home from the kennel, Stacie capitalized on my vulnerability to sappiness, so I rescinded my veto. I still had my reservations, especially if the child turned out to be a demon like our dog. Hyacinth. Hyacinth! Give me that needle. Dammit, what did I tell you about shooting heroin, Hyacinth?
          Stacie also did her share of vetoing, crushing my hopes of bestowing a comic book superhero name on our hypothetical child. Stacie vetoed Peter Parker Hemery, Bruce Wayne Hemery, Ghost Rider Hemery and Professor Xavier Hemery. And despite my perseverance, she vetoed my name suggestion for twins: Luke and Leia.
          “But when they’re born, I can stand at the end of the hospital bed and say,” I breathed deeply to conjure up my best Darth Vader impression, “‘Luke and Leia, I am your fawtha.’”
          “Is this all a joke to you?” Stacie asked. “I mean, would you really name our children…”
          “Hypothetical children,” I said, interrupting her.
          “Fine. Would you actually name our hypotheticalchildren Luke and Leia?”
          “Yes, and then I’d have them sent to different parts of the galaxy to shield them from my evil ways.”
          Nearly all of the names on our imagined hypothetical list were for girls, but we struggled to find any boy names we cared for, let alone agreed upon. Stacie actually wanted Luke to be included on the scant boy side, but I refused to allow Luke to materialize unless she agreed to his sister, Leia. I was vetoed.
          Despite our lack of boys’ names, I wasn’t concerned because I didn’t consider the name game any indication that we were making a sincere decision about parenting. I likened it to the “what would you buy if you won the lottery” game. The entire prospect remained in the realm of the theoretical. After a year of names, most of which were vetoed, I’d never bothered to consider that Stacie was serious in her desire for a child. I figured it would pass like most of her whims. Four summers ago Stacie bought all the gear to knit, but so far has produced only two scarves that sit on the top shelf of the closet. Her year-long gym membership was used for six months. Stacie owns more cookbooks than Martha Stewart, but most of the dessert baked in our oven is squeezed out of a Pillsbury tube.
          So despite the frenzied nature in which Stacie fired off names, I was perfectly content with naming our hypothetical child Magneto. There was nothing realabout the process until I noticed a list tacked to the refrigerator door. On one side was the word “Girl.” Underlined. On the other side, “Boy.” Beneath “Girl” was a list of the half-dozen or so names that we mutually agreed upon. Hyacinth topped the list. I unclipped the list and held it up in the living room where Stacie was reading.
          “What’s this?” I asked, waving the list.
          She looked nonchalantly at the list and said, “What does it look like?”
          “You tell me.”
          Domestic disputes are fantastic because perfectly intelligent adults revert to elementary school retorts: No, you tell me. Tell yourself.And on and on.
          “It’s the list of child names,” Stacie said, returning to her book.
          “Hypotheticalchild names.” Stacie ignored me and continued to read. “Why is this written out? The rule clearly states that nothing was to be recorded, written, or mentioned to outsiders until we held another meeting about this.”
          “What’s your problem? You’ve been resisting this since I brought it up. You haven’t taken any of the names seriously. If you don’t want to have a kid, you need to tell me, because I need to know. I’m fine with that, but I need to know how to think about the future.”
          “I don’t know,” I said. And I meant it. “This list just makes it real.”
          “Well, this is real. We don’t have forever to make this decision. You’ve been avoiding this by suggesting names like Frodo and Captain America.”
          “I sort of like Captain America,” I said. Stacie shook her head. I read through the names again. “You know we don’t have any boys’ names.”
          “I know.”
          “Are we not going to have a boy?” I asked.
          “I don’t know.”
          “We should probably figure this whole baby thing out now, huh?”
          There was a brief moment of silence. “Do you have any feelings about this?” Stacie asked. “I mean, do you really even want a kid?”
          I thought for a few moments and said, “I see this like dinner. I’d rather you just tell me where we’re going, and then I’ll figure out what to get from the menu. I can always find something I like and leave satisfied. But you know I can never decide where to go. So I’d rather you just tell me what we’re doing, and I’ll make it work.”
          And so began the first official meeting to set forth a hypothetical timetable to make our hypothetical child less, well, hypothetical. We decided to begin “trying” when we were both finished with our master’s degrees. I always chuckled when people said they were “trying” to have a baby. One year at a Super Bowl party, friends of ours, Jim and Mary, announced to everyone in attendance that they were going to start tryingto have a baby. Everyone “ooo’d” and “aaa’d.” The women surrounded Mary to begin commiserating on the details. I asked Jim if he was looking forward to trying. He blushed. They’d basically announced to a sizable room full of people, which included all four of their parents, that they were going to begin having a bunch of sex. Just because people call it something else like “trying,” they’re still informing the world that nearly every evening when we’re all eating dinner or walking our dogs, they’ll be sweating it out in the bedroom.
          We began a list of bylaws and policies regarding this new stage in our decision making process. First on that list was not to tell people when we began “trying.” We also insured that we were in agreement on several key details of the child-rearing process: Stacie would breastfeed the kid and stay home for the first two years (as long as the school would give for maternity leave). No football or wrestling—we worried about broken necks. And vegetarian, until it was old enough to make the decision for itself. Herself. Himself. I also promised to stop calling our possibly not hypothetical child “it.” The most important resolution set forth in that meeting was the creation of a clause—a fool-proof exit strategy that stated if either party (still Stacie and me) had a change of heart, not wishing to go through with this, there was the opportunity to cancel all baby creation. We’d share the rest of our lives together alone. No children. No questions. No regrets. It was aptly dubbed the “Pull-out Clause.”
          The Pull-out Clause enabled me to assess the possibility of being a father much more clearly. I have a tendency to say “no” anytime I feel I’m not being given options.
          Mike, we’re going to visit my family over Spring Break.
          Mike, we’re going clothes shopping this afternoon.
          Mike, we’re having a child.
          Begin tantrum.

          But if I know there are options, my infantile male brain hushes, so I’m capable of engaging in an adult discussion. I no longer felt like I had to resist Stacie’s nudges with such adamant resistance. I even allowed myself to have meaningful conversations, out loud, about which room we could convert into a nursery. She let me commit to the idea, with a no-strings-attached opt-out policy.
          “You’re almost acting like you enjoy the idea of having a kid,” Stacie said one day.
          “Well, maybe I am. But remember, there’s always the clause,” I reminded her.

          Stacie will complete her masters in four months and I’ll be finished in a little over a year. We still aren’t sure if we’re making the right decision. But I think that’s part of it, too. Maybe parents are never entirely sure they made the right choice, even after they’ve been at it for a while.
          Recently as we walked Cherry around the block on a snowy winter evening, I said, “Sometimes I worry that we shouldn’t bring a child into this world.”
          “I do, too,” Stacie said. “But, I think we’d be good parents.”
          “No, not just that,” I said. “I think we’d rise to the occasion of parenting. But it’s more that I worry about the state of the world. It’s a shitty place. There’s wars, STDs, drugs, and global warming. I mean, the whole environment thing alone is disturbing—there may be no planet at all for little Hyacinth. Or she’ll have to wear a special, shiny heat-repellent suit or something.”
          “I don’t have the answers for that one.” We walked in silence for some time. “We haven’t committed to anything, you know? You can always implement the Pull-out Clause.”
          “I could,” I said. Cherry tugged on her leash, burying her nose in yellow snow. She sneezed and lifted her leg to pee on a tree stump—she’s taken to peeing like a male dog recently. I pulled her forward. “We still don’t have a boy’s name, you know? We’re screwed if we have a boy. We’ll just have to shout, ‘Hey, you, it’s time for dinner.’”
Stacie laughed, kicking the snow with her boot. “I actually have one, but I know you’ll veto it.”
          “Oh no, is it Pine or Oak or something horrid like that?”
          “No,” she said, shaking her head. “Since all we have are girls’ names, I came up with one that we could use for a boy or a girl.”
          “Is it Cherry? Because we’re not naming our kid Cherry.”
          “Are you going to be serious?”
          “Okay,” I said, “what is it?”
          The snow was falling harder now and Cherry shook the flakes from her coat, jingling the tags on her collar. The neighborhood was silent except for the sound of our boots compacting the snow. The wind was kicking up and the sun was setting, now masked by the gray Cleveland clouds that seem to be ever present in the winter.
          “Well?” Stacie asked.
          “It’s actually not bad,” I said, grabbing her gloved hand in mine. “Phoenix Hemery is pretty good, actually.”
          “And we could call her or him ‘Finn or Phoeni’ for short,” she said.
          “Did you pick this name because of the movie?” I asked. We’d just recently watched the third X-Men movie—a film based on the comic book where Jean Grey (codename Phoenix) assumes the lead role. She is reborn as a highly powerful, intelligent, yet confused woman who can only obtain ultimate freedom by dying at the hand of her true love, Wolverine.
          “Well, that made me think of it, but that’s not who we’d be naming our kid after. It would be for the right reasons. The traditional Phoenix.”
          “Of course,” I said, nodding my head. “Rising from the ashes and everything.”
          “I’m serious,” she said. “I’ll only name our child Phoenix if you promise not to think of her or him as a comic book character.”
          I promised, pulled up the hood on my jacket, wondering how soon we could begin trying to create a superhero.

Michael Hemery is the author of No Permanent Scars. He serves as the nonfiction editor for Hunger Mountain, and earned his MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He currently resides in Cleveland, Ohio, with his wife Stacie Leatherman and son.