May and Tom were an attractively odd-looking couple. May wore suits she bought in thrift stores and fedoras she decorated herself, and Tom liked stripes. Both of them thought Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl got a bad rap. May could whistle with her fingers and make sounds like an owl with her cupped palms, and Tom could burp the alphabet but didn’t. He did, though, make bubbles on his tongue that floated a foot toward the sky before bursting. She read the dialogue in books out loud, even on the train. He had done ballet until he was seventeen and could still stand on his tippy toes.
They met at the housewarming party of mutual friends. Both of them gravitated fast to the kitchen and spent the night talking there over under and around people coming in to get beer or dip or glasses or a dustpan and brush. Their conversation wasn’t deep but it flowed well. They spent ten minutes keeping track of how many people entered the kitchen wearing something green vs something red. Red won. Another ten minutes inviting everyone who opened the fridge to take a swig from the tabasco sauce. If they did, May would take a swig with them. If they didn’t, Tom would take a swig alone. They went to a coffeeshop for ice-cream, then to May’s place. They listened to Kid Koala’s version of Moon River and watched on YouTube the English National Ballet perform to Queen songs. Tom stayed the night and in the morning while she took a shower he made the bed neatly and brewed her a cup of tea. More dates followed, then space cleared in each other’s cupboards, then a move to an apartment all of their own and tomato plants and fresh herbs growing on the fire escape.
“What do you think about children?” May asked.
“Not a fan,” said Tom. “Smelly, expensive, and a fifty-fifty chance you get a monster.”
“That’s great! I always wanted children!”
May knew Tom was lying, and knew too he was lying because he loved her, and she felt a surge of love for him on account of this that was so strong it demanded a physical manifestation. She squee-ed!
(At the same time, she wondered if his decision to lie about wanting children would one day be a spike between them, the root of resentment, and so after she squee-ed she searched his face for the future, and squee-ed again until he squee-ed too.)
In the hospital she was giving birth in one room and another family were giving birth in the room across the way. “Are you filming it?” asked the father of the other family to Tom as they both grabbed coffees from the vending machine. “You’ve got to film it.”
“I don’t have a camera,” said Tom.
“Not even on your phone?”
“I don’t have a phone.”
“I’m sure you can find a camera somewhere. That’ll be with you forever.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” agreed Tom, still no intention of filming it.
“I’d love to see your wife give birth,” said the man.
It took a thousand years between Tom putting the coin in the coffee machine and the coffee coming out.
“If I film it,” he said, “I’ll let you take a peek.”
Their daughter was gorgeous. Her eyes enormous and jet-black, like they belonged to a teddy bear instead of a baby girl. Tom thought he’d been in love with May, but holding his daughter he knew he could never love anyone as much as he loved this child, this girl he’d made all by himself. He told this to May, who said she felt the same way. But she couldn’t feel the same way – nobody could feel the same way Tom felt. Nobody ever had or ever would.
They called her Max.
She was deaf and they all learnt sign language. Sometimes Tom dreamt about him and Max making up their own sign language, that May wouldn’t know. If you combine our names, he said, you get Mom. Or Tax. She liked vegetables more than fruit. She’s a dancer, he said. She can be anything she wants to be, said May. She wants to be a dancer, said Tom. He held her with one arm and manipulated her feet into pointe with the other. You shouldn’t do that, said May. Tom didn’t say anything, but when May wasn’t around he didn’t stop.
May and Max were badly hurt in a car crash and Max’s legs would never be the same again. She’d never dance. Tom realized, belatedly, that the hospital had made a terrible mistake, mixing up his child with the daughter of that other family, the one who’d given birth across the room. He wrote to the hospital, email after email after email, and called them day and night, night and day. He refused a paternity test. He stopped going out. He saw families from the fire escape with daughters that could be his, daughters with two normal legs. It was some time before he realized May and Max had gone.
He got a fish he called Unconditional Love and forgot to feed it so it died.
He missed his dad so he called him, but the number was disconnected. It took him a week to find out he’d moved house a year ago and had a new number. He called the new number but when someone answered he remembered why he’d stopped talking to his dad, and he hung up without saying anything. When the phone rang back several times throughout the evening he ignored it. He’d never be able to answer the phone again.
He didn’t like his shoes anymore, so he threw them away, from the fire escape.
Then his pants.
His shirt, his tie, his socks, his glasses.
All he kept was the tomato plant, which had one sole cherry tomato, or one normal tomato that hadn’t yet grown the whole way.
Christopher James lives, works, and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He has previously been published online in many venues, including Tin House, Fanzine, McSweeney’s, SmokeLong, and Wigleaf. He is the editor of Jellyfish Review.