As a new mother, I would have done anything to get out of the house and away from my temperamental infant son. He had a tendency to scream maniacally for hours at a stretch, and I desperately wanted a break.
A more experienced mother suggested I pay a sweet, gentle teenage boy she knew to hold my baby while I exercised. The boy was incredibly tall — hulking in fact — with an adorable goatee. The $10/hour price was right, he didn't seem to have any other summer job, and I had pregnancy weight to lose, so I went for it.
The gym was called the Ice Chamber. No ice, but a cavernous space with the usual weights, jump ropes, and cardio machines; also sandbags, heavy braided ropes, metal bars of varying heights that resembled both playground equipment and instruments of torture. Our unique programs continue to advance human performance through science, safety, and experiential processing, the Ice Chamber website read. As an English major, I appreciated the alliteration of science and safety, though I had no idea what to make of the rest of the sentence.
Experiential processing, it turned out, meant hard-ass workouts involving tossing around heavy-ass things like medicine balls and your own body. I decided to attend the 10 a.m. classes so as not to embarrass myself in the most packed sessions. Before pregnancy, I was an obsessive exerciser. During pregnancy, I barfed multiple times every single day, gained over 50 pounds, and became winded heaving myself up off the couch to answer an impatient knock at the front door. Let's just say I wasn't in the best shape of my life there at the Ice Chamber, infant son and teen manny in tow.
But the other exercisers were nice to me. I paired up with an elderly participant who tidily outran and outlifted me. My nursing breasts were unruly, despite the triple-reinforced armored sports bra I was wearing, and they leaked a few tiny servings of breastmilk, but it blended in with the sweat, so nobody stared or anything.
I was feeling good. Things were going well.
And then they weren't.
Running around in a purposeful circle with the other exercisers, I noticed the giant, adorable manny in my peripheral vision, giving me an awkward wave. My baby looked even tinier than usual in his long man arms. Baby was crying, as usual, red-faced and insistent.
"Um... um, well," the manny stammered.
"Yes?" I said, running in place like a would-be Olympian.
"He fell down," he replied. "It's my fault. He fell because I, well, um... I dropped him."
I stopped running in place.
"I thought he might be happier in his car seat" — here I harrumphed rudely, as the car seat was one of the baby's most hated places — "so I put him in it, but I didn't strap him in, and then I turned around to get something, and the whole car seat fell down."
"Fell down from where?"
"I'll show you."
The manny was still holding the baby, which now seemed ridiculous. I collected my son, and he continued crying in my arms. The manny brought me to a bench and pointed to it: "There. That's where it happened."
The bench wasn't so high, not like a barstool or anything. More like a piano bench.
Upon closer examination, my son looked just as disillusioned and uncomfortable as he regularly looked. No visible cuts, no bruises yet.
I had an intense desire to be polite, to make others comfortable, to be a consummate hostess, never an alarmist. My decade of teaching elementary school had taught me to remain neutral and calm in nearly every circumstance. If I saw blood geysering from a nose: "You have a bloody nose. Let's take care of that." If I saw a broken arm jutting out at an entirely wrong angle: "That must really hurt." If I caught a student cheating: "You made a mistake. How will you make it right?" So I downplayed my growing sense of dread in front of the manny. Dropping babies is definitely frowned-upon. He knew that, and I knew that.
So I said, "I think I'll just finish the workout. Let me know if you see anything weird or he starts to swell up or something, OK?"
"Really!" I thrust the baby back into the long arms of the incredulous manny.
Thirty minutes later, class was over, and I speed-walked over to manny and baby. Everything was just as I had left it: discontent baby, nervous manny.
"I'm so so so sorry," he said. "You must be so upset with me."
"It's OK," I assured him. "It was an accident. Same time on Thursday?"
Once I secured the baby in the car, I could freak out privately.
My baby! My baby! I thought of the circus scene in Dumbo when the baby elephant is stuck at the top of a burning set piece that is painted like a tenement building, and all the grownup elephants rush around dramatically below. My baby! My baby! The twist is that Dumbo can fly. He can escape staged fires and greedy ringmasters. My real-life human baby fell. He really fell. All the way down. The smooth porcelain of his face pressed against the cold floor, the dough of his delicious cheeks flattened.
Off to the doctor I sped. There I was, a new mom staggering through the twisting hospital parking structure. Holding my possibly concussed baby, feeling like it was me whose head hit the ground.
Have you ever carried an infant car seat that's carrying an infant? It's awful. There is no way to properly balance the car seat, so you end up holding it to one side — let's say your right. You tilt dangerously to the right with each precarious step. How can this tiny alien thing be so obscenely heavy? You feel the need to lift more weights, but that's what got you into the whole mess.
When I arrived at the office, I found that the pediatrician, like me, was well versed in understatement.
"Let's take a look." She shined a pin of light into his tiny perfect eyes, mouth, ears. She smelled my baby. She examined his limbs, his neck, his back.
"He's absolutely fine," she determined.
"I think he looks weird," I replied. "Dazed, I guess."
The pediatrician looked more deeply into my son's eyes. "He really looks fine to me."
"He is acting kind of out of it."
"Explain what you mean."
"Well, he isn't crying as much as usual."
"That's not so bad."
"Well, he's making less eye contact, sort of?"
"Maybe he's mad at you," she responded. "Just kidding! Really, I would only be worried if there were clear fluid coming out of his ears and his eyes were crossed and bloody."
Writing this now, so many years later, I laugh at myself for rushing off to the doctor for reassurance. There have been so many major hurts since then, so many fevers, infections, bites. My daughter's legs were crushed by an enormous slab of granite in a freak accident, and she's fine.
These days, my children's ailments stack up unattended like piles of dirty dishes. The only time I take them to the doctor is when their school expressly forbids them to re-enter without a doctor's note and a prescription: impetigo, hand foot mouth, unbelievable diseases that sound like dance moves. But this was my first baby, his first accident. Precious, in retrospect.