Whatever God Blesses Us With
It all started when Stef gave birth to a 42-inch flat-screen TV.
We’d taken experimental fertility drugs for years, and we knew some weird shit could happen, but this was a surprise for everyone. Sure, she’d been carrying kind of strange, and the x-ray tech who did our ultrasounds kept making the sign of the cross as she told us she couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl, but nobody had said anything about home electronics.
They were all dumbstruck in the delivery room. The nurse screamed and passed out. The intern’s eyes stretched bigger than stethoscopes. The doctor fumbled for a grip on the LCD screen. But I was like, “All right!” because the Super Bowl was only three days away.
I begged Stef to let me plug it in that night, right there in the hospital, but all she wanted to do was cuddle the damned thing.
“Let’s see what it can do,” I said. “Don’t you want to see how clear the picture is?”
“There will be plenty of time for that,” she said, running her fingers over the tiny front-panel RCA jacks.
Of course, it was up and running by the big game. We watched it alone, though. None of the neighbors we’d invited showed up.
Probably they were just jealous. We’d heard newborn horror stories from all of them. “Get your sleep now,” they’d told us. But the TV was a cinch to take care of. If it made any noise during the night (usually because Stef fell asleep with it on), you just walked downstairs and turned it off.
Whenever the neighbors’ kids were around they’d crawl into everything, tear up magazines, get snot and spit-up all over your shirt, and just howl for hours. Biggest problem with ours was if you sat too far to one side, you couldn’t see the screen that great. So of course we were ready for another one as soon as Stef healed up.
This time she barely showed for nine months. Just had this little bulge beneath her bellybutton and then gave birth to a 5-megapixel digital camera after only twenty minutes of labor.
As soon as they got it cleaned off, I held it up to the mirror and snapped like a dozen pictures. Damned thing came with batteries. We had the shots up on ofoto that night.
After the camera I figured Stef and me were both on the same page. This was our ticket to free loot, right? I knew it was different for her because she did all the work, but it seemed like we saw it the same way. I guess we were always just talking across each other.
She lay in the hospital bed cuddling with the camera, and I told her I missed the flat screen at home. The reception on the TV in the recovery room was for shit.
“You can’t live without your babies, can you?” she asked me.
“It’s a damn fine TV,” I said. “I can’t imagine how I ever watched TV before without it.”
Stef was beaming. “Is this it for us? Or do you think you want to try for another?”
“Another TV? Nah, I was thinking we could try for one of them new Dell laptops. Our computer’s old as hell.”
“Whatever God blesses us with,” she said, taking my hand in hers.
She was pregnant again in about a year, but this time she didn’t show at all. Even at eight months we had to tell people she was pregnant.
“Do you know what you’re having?” they’d ask. “Boy or girl?”
“Neither,” I’d say, rubbing my hand on Stef’s stomach. “The way she’s carrying this time...we’re hoping for an iPod.”
Turned out it was one of them new BlackBerry palm pilots. I never figured out how it really worked, though, so mostly Stef just used it to play minesweeper or solitaire in bed, usually falling asleep with it on her chest.
“I hope I’m not spoiling this one,” she said to me one morning after we woke up with the BlackBerry wedged between us.
“Don’t matter to me,” I answered. “Our computer’s too damned ancient to be compatible anyway. It’s useless to me.”
“How can you say that?” Stef snapped, sitting bolt up in bed. “How can you talk about your child that way?”
“There ain’t shit you can do with it unless you sign up for wireless service,” I said. “And there’s monthly charges for all that. That’s how they get you.”
Stef just scooped the palm pilot onto her lap and glared at me, but a few days later the same argument came up again. This time it was about the TV.
I was sitting there watching the Eastern Conference Finals, and Stef came and stood right between me and the screen with her arms folded.
“When was the last time you told that TV you loved it?” she asked.
I tried to tell her she was cockeyed. “It’s a goddamned TV!” I said.
“But you’ve told me you love it. You’ve said so a bunch of times.”
“Look,” I told her. “My dad never told me he loved me and I turned out just fine.”
“Is that so? Maybe that’s why you’re having such a hard time expressing your emotions with your own children.”
I could see there was no use arguing. It was a one-point game going into the fourth quarter. “OK,” I said. “You’re right. I shouldn’t make the same mistake as my dad.” I got out of my chair, knelt before the TV, and placed my hand on its screen. “I love you, buddy. You know that, don’t you?”
I looked back and Stef was smiling. I thought that would be the end of it, but then she got pregnant again.
The way she was showing this time really got my hopes up. There was something wide and flat pushing a hard corner right out against her bellybutton, and I was like, “We’re finally getting that laptop!”
Then she delivered another flat-screen TV. Smaller than the first—just 28 inches. Useless seeing as we only had one cable jack in the apartment, and the other TV was on it.
I put my hand on Stef’s forehead as she lay there holding the new TV and crying. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll put it up on eBay, and we’ll use the money to buy a laptop.”
She looked at me like I’d just punched her in the mouth. “What are you talking about?” she snapped. “Here I am worried to tears over how everyone is going to compare our baby with its older sibling for the rest of its life, and you’re talking about selling one of our children. Never. You hear me? Sometimes it’s like I don’t even know you anymore.”
I thought she would change her mind once she got a load of the new laptop two weeks later. Christ, the thing had a 2-gigahertz processor, 80 gigs of memory, and a 17-inch screen. But all she said was “Where’s my baby? Where’s my baby?! What have you done with my baby?!”
“Relax,” I told her. “I didn’t sell it. I knew you didn’t want me to do that, so I went on Craigslist and I swapped it. There was no money involved.”
She was trembling so violently she looked blurry. “How could you?” she shouted. She swept through the house, packing up the TV, the BlackBerry, and the camera, only stopping long enough to call me a monster and toss a lamp at me before storming out the door.
“We couldn’t do anything with it,” I tried to tell her that night when her parents finally got her to come to the phone. “We only have the one cable outlet.”
“This is our baby,” she said. “It came from us. We don’t have to do anything with it but love it.” She paused, choked on her words a bit. I could tell she was crying. “How can you be so selfish about all this?”
“Whether it came from us, it’s got to have its own value, right?” I said, trying to reason this thing through. “I mean, just saying you love it because it’s yours, isn’t that really what’s selfish here?”
“Just get my baby back!”
“Well, I have to now. I love the laptop, but you got the other flat screen. Hell, I need a TV. It’s sweeps week, for Christ sake.”
I tried to get the Craigslist guy to swap back the laptop for the 28-inch flat screen, but he wouldn’t go for it unless I threw in a hundred bucks. What could I do? That was still so much cheaper than buying one new, and there was no way I was going back to watching a standard.
I figured Stef would come back on her own once she cooled down, but a week after she’d split she filed for a legal separation.
“This is crazy,” I told her over the phone that night. “I got the damned TV back. Why don’t you just come on home?”
“Bring me my baby!” she demanded.
I told her it was all hers once she came home, but she wasn’t hearing it. She wasn’t coming home. She demanded that I bring the TV to her. Said she didn’t want me anywhere near the children. Said she couldn’t trust me.
“Look, Stef,” I told her, sighing to give her notice I was past my fill on all this. “I’m sorry I swapped our baby for a laptop without clearing it with you first, but I’m just not going to hand over this TV to you with everything else. I’m just not, OK? I mean tonight’s the season finale of ER, for Christ sake!”
I started hooking it up as soon as I hung up the phone. By ER’s second commercial break, I felt like a total ass. It might have been smaller than the other TV, but it was a plasma screen, and you just don’t know what that really means until you’ve looked at it for a while. Shit, it was like I was watching Noah Wylie perform surgery and frown at Abby through a window. Plus, no matter how far to the side you sat, the picture was clear as day. Not to mention this one came with picture-in-picture, which meant I could flip around during the commercials without missing a beat.
It hit me like a punch in the gut as I toggled back and forth between NBC and the Fox 10 o’clock news. Both TVs deserved my love. Both had value if I was willing to look for it. Hell, they all had their own value if I was willing to look for it. Even the BlackBerry.
Stef was right, I realized as I fiddled with the fully programmable remote to make it remember my favorite channels. It was up to me to find a place in my heart for all of them. It’s like, no one ever really needed their kids until they had them, right? Well, no one ever needed two flat-screen TVs until they had them either. I’d been looking at this all ass-backwards from the start. These were top-of-the-line consumer goods. It wasn’t up to them to meet my needs, it was up to me to need them.
Suddenly I missed the rest of the equipment so bad I had trouble swallowing. I thought about how I could split the cable signal into two separate rooms, get both TVs set up, how I’d yet to use the built-in photo-editing software on the camera, how I’d only read half of the user’s manual for the Blackberry. It took everything in me not to leap at the phone, call Stef, and beg her to take me back. But I wanted to be strong. It’s one thing to realize you were wrong; it’s another to admit it to your wife.
So over the next two weeks we argued on the phone about me not giving her the new flat screen and her not coming home. I let her hear some shows over the phone, e-mailed her a photo of it I took with a new cheap digital camera I’d bought, but I wasn’t going to budge.
“It’s not fair, Stef,” I told her. “You got everything, and all I want is for you to come home. I miss them, too, you know. Did you ever think of that?”
She said nothing.
“Stef,” I said, “just do me a favor. Hold the phone close to the TV so I can hear it. I got this one here, but sometimes I miss the built-in surround sound on that one.”
She refused, and I pressed her again and again, begged her toward the end of the phone call.
Then she admitted the truth.
“I can’t figure out how to hook it up,” she sputtered, bursting into tears. “I can’t figure out any of them. Everything is all such a mess.”
“Jesus, Stef! Why didn’t you tell me?” I grabbed my keys, started pulling on a jacket while I was still on the phone. “Look, I’ll be right over. I’ll even bring this TV. Just let me make sure everything’s OK.”
When I got to her apartment, I found some kind of stereo audio cable leading out from the cable box and jammed into the video RCA jack on the TV. The camera’s batteries had been dead for weeks, and the memory card had been wedged in upside down. The BlackBerry was in sleep mode and, as Stef put it, “wouldn’t wake up.” For days, she’d been trying to charge its batteries with the camera charger and vice versa.
She sat on the sofa with her hands over her mouth as I straightened everything out. “I didn’t want you to think I couldn’t handle them on my own,” she murmured. “Am I a horrible mother?”
“No, don’t be silly,” I said as I showed her how to put the memory card in right-side up. “God, I miss this camera.”
“I thought you bought a new one,” she said.
“Yeah, but its user interface is for shit. This one’s so intuitive, and the buttons just have a better feel.” I looked up from the camera and saw that Stef was staring at me. “Plus, it’s ours, you know?”
“I miss hearing the way you talk about the kids. ‘User interface.’ I don’t even know what that means.” Stef sighed and fell gently against my side. “I miss us. I miss our family.”
“Me, too,” I said, hugging her and staring over her shoulder at the picture on the 42-inch flat screen. “I was an ass, Stef, I know that now. Christ, it only took one episode of ER for me to figure that out. I know it’s up to us to help each of the kids excel. I split the cable signal and ran a line into the guest bedroom. I think there’s enough love in this family for two flat-screen TVs. Hell, I’ve even called T-Mobile to set up a wireless account for the BlackBerry. I never thought I’d need to check my e-mail as I mowed the lawn, but who knows? Plus, I’ve been thinking about ways we could get all the kids to play together. Did you know, for instance, that you can use the camera to play automated slideshows right on one of the TVs?”
“Maybe they could use another playmate, too,” Stef said, patting her stomach and smiling. “I hear digital video recorders are really big right now.”
As I leaned in to kiss Stef so we could start working on that new playmate, I wanted to tell her that there was no point in a digital video recorder. All the cable companies were basically giving them away now and just making you pay for the service. By the time she’d deliver we’d likely already have one and then what are you going to do with two DVRs?
But I knew enough now to keep my mouth shut. If we ended up with two, I’m sure we’d find a use for both of them. Hell, after a few months we’d probably have trouble remembering how we ever got by with just one.
When I started to write this story, all I had was a first line that struck me as funny. The more I wrote, however, the more I felt that there was something strangely compelling here. I have two daughters and no flat-screen TVs, so I can only half speak from experience, but I began to feel that our ties to our children somehow intersect with our ties to top-of-the-line consumer goods. For me, the storys exploration of those intersections was eye-opening. For everyone else, Id be happy if it just lives up to that first line.