It's Sunday morning, early, and the baby hasn't made a sound. A breeze swells the curtain. Kara hears rustling leaves and the thin reedy gong of chimes from the porch. She props on one of her elbows and looks down at Brent. She bends from her hips, cranes her neck, kisses Brent's bare chest, and slaps her hand on the bed beside his ear. "Pinned," she says.
"Not fair," he says. He must've been awake with his eyes closed. He catches the back of her head in the crook of his elbow, pulls her toward him and slowly rolls. She rolls over him and falls off the edge. She lands hard on the floor on her backside.
"Ouch," she says. She stands, straightens her boxers, climbs on him, her knees pressing sharply into his hamstrings, and nuzzles her face into the nape of his neck. It's funny to her, to him, how easy this all seems. Morning wrestling used to be a precursor to sex, but it's been a long time. Not since the second trimester, he thinks, so that's like five plus four, like nine months. But, she thinks, who's counting? She hums in his ear and grinds her pelvis into his backside. He feels himself getting stiff and it's painful, her grinding.
"Did you just bite me?" he says. "Damn." He turns fast, rolls her off. He sits up and grasps where it hurts, just beneath his left ear.
"Oh, a little frog bite."
"Am I bleeding?"
"Don't be silly," she says. Then, seeing the look on his face, she says, "Sorry." Her tone is slightly self-mocking, or mocking of something, but only slightly.
He rises to his knees, bends until his lips almost touch her ear, then he locks her arm behind her back, takes her chin in his hand and pulls her swiftly down to the bed. "Pinned," he says. "A perfectly executed chin-drop." He kisses her neck. She squirms. She twists her shoulders, twists her hips, digs her toes into the mattress and bridges her back. She's breathing fast. He doesn't know how to interpret this kind of resistance. Does she think he'd be so petty as to bite back? He gets uncomfortable, releases her and pulls away. Rough play to sex to intimacy - it is not so easy after all. He feels hurt seeping like hot water on his chest and throat. He wants to play it cool. He says, "Frogs don't have teeth."
"Sure they do."
"No, there you're wrong," he says. "You've been right about a few things in your life, but about this you're dead wrong."
She's surprised by his tone. She hears the hurt, or at least his attempt to mask it. She hears blame and feels her own heat rising. The last time they'd talked about sex, the absence of it, he'd said he understood. "Frogs do have teeth."
"You're thinking of toads," he says.
" You know what I'm thinking."
He exhales, throws his legs over the side of the bed, his back to her. "Toads have teeth. Frogs do not."
His tone, suddenly so righteous; it's not like Brent unless he's hurt. If he's hurt, he wasn't being honest when he said he understood about the new stresses in their lives, about how their relationship would find new kinds of expression, about the need to be patient . and the hug . and the apology . it all feels suspect now.
She knows how to check facts. With a few clicks of the mouse she'd be into Encarta and she could look up Frogs or Toads or Frog Physiology. She'd have it quickly, but it occurs to her like a sharp pinch, she might be wrong. Either frogs or toads have teeth. She'd thought frogs, but she often reverses simple facts. It's been that way for about, hmm, nine months. Like which of the months have thirty days? That was a rhyme she'd known since girlhood, but now she gets confused. Is this a symptom of the childbearing hormones no one explained to her? Is it an effect of poor sleep? She once described her forgetfulness to Brent. She'd been crying and had wiped her eyes, but she'd thought he'd known she'd been crying. He made a joke, some kind of reversal, she can't quite remember. His response had seemed callous.
"I'll look it up," he says. "I could be wrong, but I doubt it."
"Wait," she says, urgently.
"It's not that important," he says.
"I have an idea." She'd read an article in Harpers or on the Internet - it was one of very few articles she's read lately that stayed with her. The author had been talking about fundamentalisms, Islamic and Christian, and about President Bush. He'd used the phrase, "pre-enlightenment thinking." It fascinated her to consider ways to settle disagreements or persuade others that do not involve facts or evidence and could only barely be said to involve reasoning. "I'll tell a story," Kara says, "and you tell a story and we'll see which is more convincing."
"I want you to persuade me that it is toads, not frogs, with teeth. Looking it up, that's too easy."
Brent's face shows puzzle and suspicion. "Sounds like you're backing down."
"Anyway," Kara says, "we're parents now. We should practice alternative forms of persuasion because children aren't born with logic."
"Alternative forms of persuasion," he says.
"Yes, that's what I said."
"Go ahead," he says. "Tell your story." He sits in the center of the bed, legs crossed Indian style, propped by his hands on the mattress behind him. "This ought to be good."
"I'm waiting," he says.
"No need to be obnoxious."
"You might try, once upon a time," he says. "Some very good stories have started that way."
"Once," she says, "not so long ago, a farmer discovered something was eating the corn off his stalks. He believed it was happening at night and so he sat on the edge of his field with a flashlight and waited to catch the crooks. To his great surprise all he found were little creatures hopping and croaking between the rows."
"Must've been toads," Brent says.
"That's exactly what he thought," Kara says, "so he spread toad poison on the ground the following night. And sure enough he found dozens of dead toads a day later, but he also found more of the kind of bite marks on his corn that had prompted the investigation in the first place."
"And then," Brent says, "the next night he spread frog poison and his problems were over."
"You are exactly right."
"Not buying it."
"Never heard of toad poison, but if there were such a thing, it would kill frogs, too."
"Frogs don't eat toad poison," Kara says.
"It's minty. They don't care for the flavor."
Brent considers and says, "Still, it seems scientific. Observation, hypothesis, deduction, all that."
"Then tell a better story," Kara says. She sits cross-legged on the floor with a look of expectation, or mock expectation.
"Well," he says with exaggerated confidence."
"That's a good place to start."
"Wise-ass," he says, "no interruptions please."
They sit in silence for a minute and they each begin to feel there are other people in the room - their friends, her parents, his parents. It's a common feeling since the baby arrived. They've joked about it, how complex their lives have become, older, forgotten relationships, forgotten selves bubbling into new situations; how a room with only the two of them can feel crowded. It doesn't seem so funny now. He can hear her tension when she clears her throat. Most of another minute passes before he says, "I don't want to tell a story."
"I have a better idea."
"I think we should pray."
"Brent, how will that settle our problem?"
"God will give one of us the answer." Brent lowers himself from the bed to the floor. He kneels and tilts his head downward.
Kara watches. She's never seen Brent pray and she can't remember the last time she did. They'd talked about religion and God when they were first dating, but they'd talked about everything then. He'd said his family was very Catholic and there were times he'd wished he could share the faith, but it had always felt false, like some kind of performance was expected of him. She kneels on the opposite side of the bed. What else can she do? "This feels a little silly," she whispers.
"Ssshh," he says, "I think I'm getting something."
Two minutes pass. She gets something - a terrible fright. It's not a voice, not anything like what she's imagined the prophets experienced when God deemed it necessary to speak to them. It's been so long since she allowed her imagination to bend in that direction. She feels unsure of who she is. Is this a vision? No, not exactly. She feels she's being carried, as if by rushing water. She is underground. It is dark. Oh, it's a little like the time she did mescaline with that boyfriend, what was his name, and discovered all her insecurities from years gone by were alive and well, swimming in their own dark, quiet streams just below the surface. She'd thought then as now, there's a me hidden from me, and she's not always nice. "I don't want to play this game anymore, Brent," she says.
"Ssshh," he says. "I'm getting the truth now." He doesn't sound like he's playing. Or perhaps he's playing very well and so he's lost the game. He doesn't know. He knows that he'd been feeling hurt and his hurt was turning toward anger and patterns of response he has wanted to change. He knows the anger dissipated like a thin morning cloud in the rising sun, but he doesn't know if it had to do with the prayer exercise or with shutting her out or what. He'd never believed himself able to channel the voice of God, but for the sake of the game he pretended and the results were surprising. Why not? Why wouldn't God speak to him? He simply hasn't taken the time to listen. This toad thing, it could be like the cornerstone of a new church. For God's sake he could give up his petty resentments, which come, after all, from petty human desires. He could rise above.
He turns to face her in a way that she doesn't recognize. His neck turns, but his back remains straight. He says with an expression that seems foreign, put on, but not put on, "TOADS."
"That's it, Brent?"
"You were right," he says. "We don't need evidence. I'm more certain now than I ever was. In fact, I think a great deal was revealed to me." He stands. It's thrilling for him to speak this way, like how he imagines it should be to testify or give a full confession. Again, he says, "A great deal was revealed to me." He has an erection poking through his BVD's and makes no effort to conceal it.
"Enough already," she says.
"No, not enough."
"I want to have the baby baptized. Today. Right now."
"Stop it, Brent. It's not funny anymore."
"I'm serious," he says.
"That was a decision we were going to make together. I'm not ready. Definitely NOT right now."
He smiles at her, a slow, absorbing, slightly unfocussed smile; a face she hasn't seen since the time they tried nitrous oxide. He vomited that evening, or perhaps it was she who'd gotten sick. "I'll prepare the boy," he says.
"The boy?" she says. "Prepare?"
He walks out of the room with his hard on and his bland smile.
"Don't you wake that baby," she screams.
As if on cue, the baby emits a gurgling, underwater sound followed by a full-throated wail.
"Don't you dare touch that baby!" She runs from the bedroom and attempts to block him in the hall, but with surprising strength he brushes her aside. She jumps on his back and squeezes his neck with all her might, but again Brent shrugs her off effortlessly. He passes through a curtain into the room with the crib and the crying baby. Kara is on the floor, on her knees again. Beside her is the door to the closet, home of the vacuum cleaner, winter coats, boots, gloves, Frisbees, balls, and an aluminum bat. She reaches for the bat, not because she was right about the frogs, and now she knows she was; but because it makes no difference, no appreciable difference.