She wants to know how it works.
It’s easy, he tells her. You create a profile on the Babes app, upload a couple pictures of your baby, fill out the profile, and then people can start Holding. Thirty dollars for the first hour; five dollars for each additional fifteen minutes.
They’re pushing their toddlers in the swings next to each other. She only knows him from the playground, but he’s always seemed like a good dad. Engaged. Attentive. The worst thing she can say about him is that he has a mustache. It surprises her to learn that he rents out his child.
It’s safer than taxis, he says.
She never knew taxis were a barometer for safety. Can you be there while the person is Holding?
It’s frowned upon. He did it the first couple of times, but it seemed pointless, a waste of time. The app has the Holder’s personal information, so they wouldn’t get far if they did something; and besides, it was a good time to run errands, read a book, take a nap.
She asks what people did with his baby when he stayed.
One guy wanted to use the baby to pick up women. One woman was meeting an ex she feared was trying to rekindle their relationship. Then there was the woman who just wanted to hold his child. She swayed back and forth. She sniffed the child’s head. She cried in awful, wet sobs that reminded him of cooked spaghetti. He was embarrassed to be there. That’s when he decided: No more sticking around.
That night, she sits in bed. An episode of Fixer Upper she’s seen ten times before streams on Hulu. Her husband snores obnoxiously. He had been out earlier for his fantasy football draft and came back smelling of cigars and whiskey. He was a little drunk. It’s only 9 PM. There was a time in her life when she would have still been getting ready to go out on a Saturday night, but this is her life now. She wouldn’t change anything about it, but she does get bored. Maybe that’s why she downloads Babes. Maybe it’s curiosity, like the times she considers—but not really considers—creating a fake Match.com profile. There’s so much to modern life she’s missed, can’t even comprehend, because she wasn’t born ten years later. The app finishes downloading. She signs up with a fake name as a Holder. There are reviews of babies. She reads them:
Tyler—A plump Hold. Laughed a lot. (five stars)
Zara—Good Hold, would recommend. Pooped tho. Knocks her down a star for me. (three stars)
Jordan—Baby didn’t look like picture. (one star)
She sees a baby with impossibly round cheeks, a swirl of strawberry hair, and fat little hands grasping a fat little foot. She knows this baby. It is her baby. Her stomach feels like it’s being sucked down a drain. The urge to check on her child commands her to the nursery. It’s ridiculous, she knows; of course the baby is there, but she still feels cool relief when she sees her child balled into sleep. In the dark of the nursery, she sits in the rocking chair; the glow of the phone illuminates her face in cold light. She reads her baby’s profile. There is a short bio. It has no mention of her, the mother. She cycles through emotions like she’s scrolling through Instagram posts: anger, betrayal, confusion, anger again, and again, and again. She looks up how to report someone on the app but can’t find anything.
Who would do something like this? What was their endgame? She can’t figure it out. She thumbs the button below her child’s picture that reads “Schedule a Hold.” The only times available are Sunday afternoons. Like a new show on Netflix, it comes to her all at once.
They call them Daddy Days. Every week her husband takes their little one on special trips. To the zoo. To the art museum. To see the latest Pixar movie in IMAX. Or so he’s told her.
Her head is spinning. Her body is electric. She’s so mad she could cry. She looks again at her baby and imagines all the strange arms that have cradled the child, all the little whispers that have filled their perfect cup ears, all the credit card transactions. What did these Holdings pay for? She wonders. Suddenly, everything in the house looks cheap and vicious.
His stupid face is scrunched against the pillow. It reminds her of of an empty latex Halloween mask. She tries to wake him with a shove of the shoulder, but he’s dead to the world like a bricked phone. In an irrational world, she decides, you have to hold your anger like a knife to the throat. It’s the only thing the world will understand. She slaps her husband across his sleep-creased face.
Her husband is more confused than hurt. He holds his cheek like he has a toothache. He asks her what’s going on.
She shows him her phone, their child’s face cut awkwardly into a circle below the Babes logo. Her husband says nothing. If this were a cartoon, a piano would fall out of the sky in this moment, land on his head, and he would walk around the room, his body springing up and down like an accordion. But this isn’t a cartoon. This is real life, and it gets more bizarre by the second.
There are questions she wants to ask: How many times has he rented out their child to strangers? Did he at least stay to make sure everything was okay? Why couldn’t he just be cheating on her? Before tonight, that was the worst thing she could imagine him doing, but what could be worse than this? If there’s an app for everything, she thinks, where are the apps you actually need? Where can she download the app that will help her navigate a moment like this, when her life is cracking like the screen of a dropped phone? In the end, she decides, there’s only one question to ask. It’s the only one that matters right now. Why?
He swings his feet over the side of the bed. He runs a hand through his thinning hair, rubs his neck like the answers are somewhere back there and just needs retrieving. He talks of the price of Postmates, the rate hike for Netflix, the downturn in the market, and the new Disney+ service. Surely, they’ll need to subscribe to Disney+. She can’t understand any of this. He says he wants to be a provider. He talks about a husband’s purpose, a father’s purpose, a man’s purpose. He wants his family to know a life of Hulu with no commercials.
That’s fucked, she tells him. She leaves the room and enters the nursery. She picks up her sleeping child. The baby opens their eyes for a moment, as if to make sure of whom is holding them. She whispers to her child that everything is going to be okay. She wants to believe it. Her husband is in the doorway. He asks her what she’s doing.
She tells him that they’re leaving.
Where does she plans to go at an hour like this, he wants to know.
Not to prostitute their child, she tells him as she walks past; but the truth is, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s making it up one step at a time.
He follows them down the stairs. She puts on shoes and picks up the diaper bag. He asks her what she thinks she’s doing when she posts pictures of their child on Facebook. He tells her that she does it for the Likes; she does it for the comments; to rack up the notifications. He asks her if she actually thinks she’s above it all, that she’s better than anyone. He tells her not to kid herself. At least he’s providing something for the family and not his ego.
She doesn’t close the front door as she leaves. She doesn’t look back to see if her husband is watching. She holds her baby so close that she thinks she’ll never let go. The sky is clear, and the moon hangs low and full. She can see the road ahead of her in all its details. There’s an all-night diner a mile away. It seems as good a destination as any. She’ll carry her baby all the way. And when she gets there, she’ll…well, she doesn’t know what she’ll do. She doesn’t know what comes next.
Ian Anderson is a writer and designer living in Baltimore, MD, with his wife and daughter. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief at Mason Jar Press, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Wigleaf, Five : 2 : One Magazine, Baltimore Fishbowl, and elsewhere. When not writing, designing, running a press, being a husband or father, he is listening to The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. He tweets about that and other things from @ianandersonetc.
Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower