Cleft30 March 2015
Michael dug his finger into the top of a mandarin and peeled the skin back in one go, hating the way the stringy white bits clung to the fruit. He picked them out and placed them inside the curve of empty skin. Michael only liked fruit when it was sour, just half-ripe, and he had a feeling this mandarin was going to disappoint. He passed a piece to his son Henry who sat at his feet playing with giant Lego.
“Nup.” Henry’s favorite word. He spat it out.
Henry reached a hand up and Michael passed him another piece.
“Nup.” Henry spat out the second piece, more forcefully this time, and chuckled.
Michael put a piece in his own mouth and shot it across the room. Henry flung himself against the carpet and cackled in that wild way only toddlers can.
“You two! Stop wasting,” Natalie, Michael’s wife, said.
Henry’s chest heaved. Natalie picked him up and squeezed him.
“Little cheeky chops!” she said, then, looking at Michael, “I’ll give him a bath and put him down if you don’t mind getting dinner started?”
“Yeah that’d be perfect, thanks.” Michael placed his hand on her swollen belly before walking over to the kitchen and flicking the kettle on.
Once Henry was asleep, they sat next to each other on the couch eating pasta and watching Groundhog Day. The wooden boards of the house creaked and the tin roof popped as the day’s heat worked its way out into the night. Michael’s parents bought the beach house when he was only Henry’s age and he had spent every summer there since. This summer his parents were travelling and they had it to themselves. Nestled low amongst the tea trees it sat against a walking track that curved up from the street, over the dunes and out to the beach beyond. The dense coastal scrub surrounding the walking track was thick enough that it grew over your head like an arch. He liked the thought of his own little boy sleeping in his old room, the ocean crashing just close enough that you could hear it. But that night he was restless; the following day Natalie had to head back to Melbourne to have a check up and some scans.
“How are you feeling about tomorrow?” he asked.
“Yeah, fine. You?”
“Strange. Nervous. I wish I could come with you.”
“Me too.” She turned her head to look at him. “But Mum will come with me. Besides, it’s better that we aren’t carting Henry up and down unnecessarily. Everything will be fine.”
“I’ll miss you two.” He placed his hand on her stomach. The baby kicked as if straight into his hand. Natalie laughed.
“Evidently we’ll miss you too.”
The gravel popped underneath Natalie’s tyres as she pulled into the driveway the following afternoon. The sound reminded Michael of knuckles being cracked.
“Look who’s here!” he said, picking Henry up and waltzing him outside. “Mummy’s home!” She said, dropping her bag and taking Henry. She kissed Michael on the cheek rather than the mouth. She didn’t look him in the eye. “Would you like fish and chips for dinner, darling?”
“I am happy to cook,” Michael said.
“Not tonight,” she said, her eyes still fixed on Henry, “I don’t feel like being in the house.”
They walked home from dinner along the beach, Henry asleep in Natalie’s arms. As they began to snake their way up the beach track Michael fell into step behind Natalie. With her back to him he felt more comfortable.
“Is everything okay?”
Natalie seemed not to hear him. She turned.
“Can you take him? I’m tired.”
Michael reached for the warm bundle of toddler.
“We can talk when he’s down.”
When they got back to the house, Michael put Henry in his crib while Natalie made them a cup of tea in the kitchen. He stroked Henry’s forehead, pushing his thin blonde hair out of his eyelashes. He heard the kettle whirr through the crack in the door. He kissed Henry on the head and checked the baby monitor before leaving the room. Natalie sat waiting for him at the table, two cups in front of her. He sat down and took one of the steaming cups into his hands.
“The baby.” She looked down at her hands. “It’s a boy. He has a cleft palette, a bad one. Much worse than…” she looked up at Michael’s lip.
That night they lay beside each other in bed. The weather was humid. Natalie, restless, had twisted her edge of the sheets around her knees from shifting. They were both pretending to be asleep, but the silence was thick and their breathing erratic. She turned her head towards him, her gaze focused somewhere around the space just above his head.
“I don’t think I can, Michael,” she said.
A long time passed before she spoke.
She rolled over. He trailed his eyes over the back of her head, down her neck and let his gaze rest at the base of her spine. In the silver summer light her hips and back, swollen with the baby, looked like they were glowing. He wanted to reach around and hold her stomach but the gesture felt wrong, intrusive. Michael squeezed his eyes shut and ran his tongue over the scar on his palate until he fell asleep.
When Michael woke up, Natalie’s side of the bed was empty. He could hear her in the kitchen making breakfast for Henry. With his eyes closed he listened to Henry smack his cup against the high chair. Lately, when they weren’t looking, Henry had taken to jamming his mashed banana into his right ear. The floorboards outside the bedroom creaked as Natalie crept in and placed a cup of coffee on his bedside table. He pretended to be asleep but she hovered, her anxiety pulsing above him. Henry squealed gleefully from the kitchen – half the banana would be in there by now. She sighed and edged back out of the room.
Michael got up and went into their en-suite. He lathered his face with shaving cream and pulled the razor up his cheek relishing the crisp sound the hairs made as they yielded to the blade. Michael hardly noticed his cleft lip scar anymore. Sure, kids had teased him at school, but now he only really thought about it when he shaved. He tilted his chin up, checking he hadn’t missed any spots. Natalie walked in and sat on the edge of the bath behind him.
“Michael I, I didn’t mean…” She trailed off.
He washed the shaving cream off his face and rubbed the towel across it before sitting down next to her. They made eye contact in the mirror.
“I wasn’t thinking.” She cupped her stomach.
“I was just scared, and confused, and…” She shook her head. “I didn’t mean it. I mean, how could I have meant it?”
Fat tears filled her eyes, rolled over her eyelashes and down her face. Michael held her against his chest and felt her shaking body send tremors through his own.
“I’m so sorry.”
He rocked her from side to side.
“It’s ok,” he said.
She squeezed her fingers into the small of his back. He looked at himself in the mirror and realised he had a smear of shaving cream stuck in the scar above his lip. He wiped it away before easing Natalie’s face from his chest and kissing her on the mouth.