by Marc Labriola
If the needle swung from side to side, it would be a girl. If the needle swung in circles, a boy. Lailah’s three sisters lay her laughing in Ben’s arms as her mother dangled the needle above her belly. Each woman willing the azimuth of the needle like an ancient geographic divination.
No one agreed on the gender of the needle and thread. Lailah’s mother saw a boy. The youngest sister swore it barely moved. The sister who had sworn off men blamed Lailah for the cryptic emanations of her body. Her mother, laughing her head off, mapped out Lailah’s body as the tree of life—naming ten parts of her body from head to toe which formed the ten Sephirot where God was broken into male and female. Lailah and Ben were silent in their pose. They had both distinctly traced the needle as it swung to the left, then swung to the right.
The women passed around the black and white sonogram of the baby. Seven more days until the eleventh week, and Lailah and Ben Amora would know if the baby would be male or female. The women warned Ben from the doorway. Whatever Lailah doesn’t eat will be missing in her child. Everything edible that she sees she has to bite, sip, lick. If she gets ugly, she’s having a girl.
Looming in front of the washroom mirror, Ben faced his own broken face. His features would be ugly in a girl. He was afraid to inflict a daughter with his hooded boxer’s eyes. Working as a cutman now at the ring, he thought of how many times he’d seen faces opened up, re-arranged, lopsided. One eye swollen shut with blood. Top lip opened wide. One cheek bigger than the other. The very idea of human features themselves, engorged or stretched by the spasms of happiness or misery, seemed grotesque. The clumsy orbit of shamefaced eyes. The stupidity of a lonely man’s nose. The little arch in the centre of the top lip—the Cupid’s bow—the instrument of the god of sexual love. The two philtral columns between the nostrils and the upper lip, where Ben wore a small stitched scar after failing the ten count, was sunken, according to legends told to mystic children, by the finger of an angel of conception to make babies forget the miracle of birth. The features of man and woman are purely vestigial, he thought. Remnants of a divine history— part god and part baboon.
Dead drunk by ten, he succumbed to an exaggeration of his fusiform visual sense—deciphering faces where there were none. Baby girls’ faces in nighttime foetal clouds with their sonogram silhouettes seen from his third floor apartment balcony. Faces in the memory of a pattern on a woman’s dress who was sent to him after he lost the fight. Faces in the entoptic phenomena of the eye—seeing two blue girl’s eyes when he closed his own eyes, face down on the kitchen table.
Waking up as the husband of a pregnant wife, still seeing double from the dregs of the hours before, he picked up the needle and red thread which had been left untouched on the table. All domestic objects were really veiled ciphers for the most mortal of life’s happenings. To Ben, the bottle of bourbon, the pack of smokes, a needle and thread, petroleum jelly, cotton swabs, retained all of their original magical savagery.
Ben looked over to see his naked pregnant wife asleep in the bed of their one room apartment. He thought of Lailah’s body as the perfect cipher. For ten weeks her body had not moved involuntarily. The gesticulations of her body—her heartbeat, the blinking of her eyelids, were all tiny revelatory acts of the baby inside his wife. Careful not to wake her, he took hold of her palm. He was a man who knew about hands. Ben took her pulse. He bent over her to count her heartbeats per minute. Lailah’s sisters had instructed him that evening that even one beat over one hundred forty heartbeats was a girl. He tried to sleep off the booze.
Lying there with his hands on his wife’s torso as if scrying her bare belly, now iridescent from the light of the street, there opened a lesion of jealousy between Ben and Lailah. He remembered times he had come home too late in the night to be a man. He knew she felt he was losing his handsome boxer’s face. That he began to fear other men. That he had lied to her when he said he was not bothered that she was older than him, at the five years it took to conceive—each one secretly blaming the other.
Ben knew that Lailah began to see him as the bearer of weaknesses. His bad shoulder. His fear of water. His scarred lip that burned in the cold. She saw him as Ben “Animal” Amora, the man that had lost his job two times in as many years after giving up fighting following that knockout in the tenth, who had to take the job as a cutman at the ring where he was once an animal god. Fixing busted up eyes and flattened noses and smashed mouths of men transformed into wounded beasts. She had left behind a wealthy home to come live in this apartment, in this cold, shitty place. Ben was terrified that she would begin to revile him, as his blood unfurled in her unborn baby, for the possibility that his faults were being repeated unstoppably in the child. That even his cicatrix lip was a feature than could be passed on to the baby. Every scar that the cutman had collected was as much a part of him as his grandmother’s hairline, his dead mother’s eyes.
Waking up now, she climbed on top of him the way she had done since her belly started to swell, and undid his buckle. Ben became attentive to his feminine nails holding her thighs. He felt the usual blush of his cheeks. Lailah, too, was also suddenly aware of what she saw as her failures as a woman—the growth of hair on her legs, her small breasts moving up and down. Ben couldn’t help thinking up names of fruit for cock and birds for cunt.
During the last two burdensome years seeing him weak, she became more attracted to him for what she saw as a rise in her own beauty through the elaboration of femininity she showed in the face of his lack of masculinity. But secretly, she half-knew that he too was attracted to her because of her boyish looks, her smoker’s voice, her square shoulders. In seven days, the revelation of the baby’s gender would be, in fact, a testament to their own identity, their success or failure as a man or a woman. Both of them, separately, were measuring their own divinity in the creation of the child and their own desire to pull apart the spherical androgynous creature that they had become in Lailah’s belly. To unveil it, undisputedly, as male or female.
Afterwards, Lailah pretended to scoop out his eye, placing it in her belly. I want the baby to have your eyes. She mimicked pulling off his eyebrows and putting them in her belly. I want the baby to have your eyebrows. Lailah removed his ears, his forehead, his hair. Leaving his lips. Moving behind him she draped her long black hair to curtain his face. You look like a girl. They didn’t look so different, Ben thought. Years of contorting their faces alongside each other as they made love or as Lailah watched Ben get hit in the kidneys, in the gut, in the face. Their mimicked convulsions were what reshaped them. They lay down back to back as they had begun to do after making love.
Less than seven days before learning if his own child would be a boy or a girl, Ben dreamed that he was not a man. In the ring he let another man explode his nose, dislocate his jaw, close up his right eye, scar his lip. No one but Ben knew why he kept dropping his hands. But tonight, Ben “Animal” Amora rose after the ten count and fixed himself up with his cutman’s tools—his enswell, his cotton balls, his petroleum jelly. With his implements, he added two new blue feminine eyes, a new jaw, perfect lips. The cutman made himself into two. Into some ancient spherical person with back to back bodies of a woman and man, whose androgynous strength could challenge any man who tried to pull them apart.
Examining the scar on his dreaming face, where ten stitches had once closed up his lip, Lailah put a finger to his Cupid’s bow and imagined for a guilty instant, the way all lovers secretly imagine at the moment of their greatest love, what it would be like if Ben died.
Marc Labriola is an author, poet, and teacher. He has taught literature and writing in Toronto, Canada and Rome, Italy. He lives in Toronto with his wife and daughter.