Chapter 1 - Five Nights Before I Disappeared

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Was that a knock?

I'm awake in the dead of night for the seventh or eighth night in a row. Hell if I can remember how long it's been. The baby came only a few weeks ago. My insomnia should stem from him, awake and crying. Should be. But, no, here I am, unable to sleep for no one's fault but my own in a house of exhausted people. Me. My girlfriend, Nicole. Our son. Two words still new to me.

Maybe that's why I'm up now, spooning chunky peanut butter straight from the jar, standing half-naked in the kitchen in the desperate hope that I can induce a caloric coma. No such luck. And now a knock at the door, or so I think.

I'm tired, that's all. No one's at the door at this hour.

I listen for movement. Nothing.

Ours is a small house built back in the Depression. The hardwood floors and the quiet neighborhood in the 'burbs sealed the deal for the mortgage. You can hear everything, from the sparse basement to the second floor with the spare rooms.

Nicole and the baby, planted into a bassinet, sleep in a bedroom I should be in right now off the great room that makes up the main floor. The great room includes a kitchen with an island that doubles as a dining space, where I prop myself up on elbows and chew peanut butter like cud.

So this is what our friends joked about. The complete, utter, transformative exhaustion of fresh parenthood, and all the perks that come with it. The kind of exhaustion that makes you regret every time you've ever complained about feeling tired. The kind of exhaustion that doubles as a rite of passage and a pious benchmark for shutting down those who would dare compare owning a pet to having a baby. The kind of exhaustion that maybe, just maybe, short circuits the part of your brain that actually tells it to sleep, along with the ability to tell what is and isn't a knock.

Why am I still awake? Why aren't I in the bedroom next to Nicole and the baby?

From the island in the kitchen, I gaze at the front door on the other side of the living room. There's an ornate glass oval in the center that lets in light from the silent street outside. I could open it up right now and leave. It'd be better that way, for both of them. They say it can take time for the mother to bond with a child, especially after a traumatic birth like the one Nicole went through. Emergency C-section. Barely enough energy to care for herself now, let alone a newborn. That leaves me picking up the slack as she recovers, with no time for the on/off switch of parental exuberance like in the movies.

I'm not asking for a pity party, because we wanted this child. We planned for it. We did. But where's that we now? There's barely a me. I'm so tired I can't sleep. It's a cliché, but it's damn true. I'm not the same person I was back then.

I focus on the front door and fantasize about stepping through it. How cool the fall air would feel on my skin. The items I'd pack. The note I'd leave. I'd send them money, sure. I'm not a complete asshole. But this isn't what I signed up for, no, sir. It's the worst kind of buyer's remorse, and I know that, but the hell if I know what to do with myself anymore. Hold out on the hope that I'll learn to love? Babies are supposed to bring out the best in a person, but our son did the opposite.

Wait. Was that a knock again?

Stuffing the spoon back into the peanut butter, I walk to the front door. Even in the darkness of the room I catch my reflection approaching the oval glass. White t-shirt, boxer shorts and a melancholy in a pair of eyes I shouldn't recognize but do. I want to yank that reflection out of its home in the glass pattern and strangle it, screaming, "Man up. Enough of this sad sack bullshit. You're a father now, so take care of your child and your girlfriend. They're counting on you. Too bad if you don't like it. You brought it on yourself. No one wants to hear your problems."

At least I can pretend to be a man and check the door. Hell, that's half of the male world right there, constantly trying to prove it's worthy of that Y chromosome. It's no wonder I feel emasculated. There's no scoreboard for being a father, no competition, no gauge of masculinity. Just diapers and crying babies and doctor appointments and insomnia and gentle hands and no credit for any of it. Not like when I first met Nicole, back when it was all parties and alcohol and sex and cars and late nights and more sex. Easy to show the world how you're a man with those things.

But now? Reduced to peanut butter and stumbling through a dark living room in search of noises that may or may not be in your head? No thank you.

I check the front door, and of course there's nothing there. Walking back through the kitchen, I twist the knob on the back door with similar results. The digital clock on the stove says something about it being 3 a.m., but my bleary eyes aren't sure. Was I really in the kitchen for two hours? It felt more like five minutes. I check the peanut butter. There's a lot more missing than I remember eating. My throat should be jammed with the sticky stuff, but it feels fine. I gulp a glass of water to be sure.

That's when I hear something else, and this time I'm positive it's not a knock. It's our son crying in the bedroom. Nicole stirs from beneath her blankets and says a faint, "Liam, honey, the baby," through the open door. Her stomach muscles are still too torn up to get out of bed without help, let alone address a squirreling baby.

I catch my reflection again in the oval glass of the front door as I walk to the bedroom. I look surprised at myself, as if I were saying, "What were you thinking? You weren't serious about leaving, were you?"

A part of me wants to answer what I'm really thinking, but I can't. The baby needs a change, and my tired mind can't think of more than one thing at a time. After swapping out the diaper, I slip little mittens over his hands to keep him from unintentionally clawing at his eyes.

Would he even know if I'd left?

Sleep comes eventually as it always does, but never soon enough. I barely have time to close my eyes before the alarm goes off. Time for work. Time to get dressed. Time to sit in a car for an hour in traffic. Time to fake away sucking at my job ever since the baby was born. Time to read company manifestos about finding work/life balance. Time to thank my mother-in-law after I get home for coming over to help while I'm away. Time to take a long shower and masturbate into a tissue. Time to convince myself it's all worth it while a semi-conscious infant thanks me by peeing into my eye while I peel a rancid diaper from his skin.

You think this is hard? Nicole went through something a million times worse. Shut the hell up. It'll get better soon. This is only a phase.

I hope that's all this is, because I'm starting to lose faith. Maybe a good night's sleep will help.

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