I supposed that the technician was about to ask, “Would you like to know the sex of your baby?” because that is what these technicians always say in movies. Then, with a smile, we would both defer to the mother’s preference to know the baby’s gender. But the technician didn’t say those words, and I had no practiced deference to act out a response. Instead she said, “I don’t see a heartbeat.” Perhaps someone can say a phrase so often it is impossible to feign gravitas in their speech, words worn down like tread on a tire, and I’m pavement underneath wheel. The words “heart” and “beat” fell with a bland effect, and it was clear we were supposed to register the two syllables on our own. Her words and their meaning felt like an administrative oversight; ifshe could see it, then the baby would be alive. Maybe it was a matter of opinion, like the way a painting can or cannot be pretty depending on who is looking at it. But the towel, handed over my wife’s tummy, suggested we were done with the examination, and that there would be no more speculation. The non-heartbeat discovery would have to be followed by a surgery. I wiped the bluish fluid off of my wife’s stomach, and the two of us—just the two of us—left the room.
This wasn’t the first time I had seen something die or already dead through a screen and a sensor. Through high-frequency sound waves and signal processing, I had spent most of last year watching insurgents exsanguinate on some arid plain. The baby, the insurgent—both came across in grainy white pixels, too inhuman to regard with empathy. If you didn’t like what you saw, you could toggle frequencies, infrared heat, low-pass filters to eliminate shadowing, residual movement. Then, finally, there was resolution “OFF” if you had totally lost patience with the show. We didn’t have funerals then, and we wouldn’t have a funeral now. There was nothing in the traditional sense to bury, just a long list of non-persons with serialized alphanumeric indicators and perhaps a DNA sample to confirm, in the future, that the same person wasn’t killed twice. Maybe this was revenge.
Our grief was compounded in the lobby. Families exited the maternity ward with their babies like consumers carrying so much sleepy merchandise. The hospital ombudsman told me that we are a cute couple, and that we would be “OK.” I felt a cynical pang of grief for all the ugly couples. It was not a bad thing to hear kind words now, even if they were mainly the by-products of a savvy healthcare consultant who designed a method to avert lawsuits. And for that reason, the ombudsman was definitely a woman in her late sixties with silver hair. You wouldn’t sue your grandmother, would you? The next week, or weeks, might require a censorship campaign of Stalin-esqueintensity. Women with protruding bellies, baby product commercials, and even just generally plump women might need to be excised from my wife’s sight. If my efforts were too pronounced, the censorship campaign would be counterproductive. It must be subtle, but I felt too numb for subtlety, as if her post-surgery anesthesia haze was partly my own. I noticed that there were a lot of balloons in the lobby, and I didn’t think I would be able to hide them all from her.
We returned to our home in northern Virginia, a sleepy suburb famous for its quiet affluence. Government contracting, loveless in nature but highly profitable, was what kept our town afloat. In our community garage, I emptied our car of pre-baby clutter, items preparatory and emotive in nature: a baby car mirror, unopened and still with its receipt clinging with static force to the cellophane wrapping; a “baby on board” sticker; and a jug of cat litter that I had purchased in case wintery slush somehow trapped our SUV. Utility cat litter gravel and my folding military shovel were my combo response to bad weather and any emergency trip to or from the delivery room—a book had told me to be prepared for a premature baby, especially during winter, and I took the advice seriously. I set the litter next to my wheel well and tossed the mirror in the trash.
The next morning there was a note on my car that read:
Common areas do not tolerate storage items or trash. Items must be removed by [set date] or a maximum fine of ten
dollars per day will be issued.
The Condominium Association
I enjoyed the disembodied reference “common areas do not tolerate,” which seemed to give human-like preferences to a vacant space. I sat in my car’s driver’s seat and pondered weighty matters, such as ten-dollar fines and stillborn children.
Haji Saifullah was a crafty bastard. He was required by the insurgency to plant ten improvised explosive devices in the Helmand River valley every month. His bombs were designed to look like trash, or they were designed to appear like those which had already been disarmed. It was his flair for these partials that made him so lethal, and it was his preference for human couriers and misdirection in comms that made him so hard to kill. So, when I couldn’t find where he slept at night, I looked for where he stored all of his explosives. When I took ninety percent of his homemade explosive stash in two separate cache raids, I thought, “Surely the insurgent transport mafia will kill him if he can’t deliver his quota.” The transport mafia that ran through Balochistan to Helmand was ruthless toward its opponents and its own non-performers alike. If you weren’t earning or burning, you were as good as dead, dumped in the Helmand River with your wives and goats passed on as property to the next most competent bomb maker.
The next month went by, and Haji Saifullah still planted ten IEDs. Nine of them were blanks, without a single main charge. His attack videos went up on social media, showing bomb disposal techs spending hours inspecting his palm oil containers filled with feather pillows. In a few of the videos, an insurgent would fire wild shots at the disposal team with a decrepit AK-47. His IEDs were planted astride district lines—arbitrary demarcations that only the coalition paid attention to—in order to maximize confusion among the disposal teams who assumed the other team would be responsible for disarming the weapon. In some cases, his feather-pillow bomb sowed maximum confusion when two separate teams were called on site, leading to disputes over jurisdictions.The fake bomb usually distracted coalition forces from a more important event—like an insurgent jailbreak or an assassination.
Haji got paid that month and was promoted to regional boss in the next month. I liked Haji. I wish I had killed him, but I liked him nonetheless.
The day after I received the cat litter note from the condominium association was a busy one. I bought nine jugs of cat litter, all of identical brand and weight. At four in the morning I took the stairs, skipping the elevator, down to the condo garage. I didn’t have a suitable cover story for why I was carting cat litter to the elevator at night; that would make for an awkward elevator ride, I thought. “Cat pooping a lot?”a nosy neighbor might ask. “Yes, a shitload,” I would reply. But the neighbor would undoubtedly remember the exchange, and my nascent insurgency would be outed and defeated. So, I made it a policy to use the stairs during this operation, ensuring that I could always run up or down the stairs if I heard someone leaving for work in the morning. Undetected, I placed a cat litter jug flush against the cinder block wall, directly between the parking spaces of a white Land Rover and a black Infinity. I didn’t really know owners of the parking spaces, but I did know that by placing the jug on the line between the two spots, no one would take immediate responsibility for the cat litter. I repeated the process for eight additional spots, potentially implicating eighteen vehicles in non-compliance with the condo association. Would the association level $180 in fees per day? Cat litter could possibly generate $5,400 in earnings per month! My mind was thrilled at the ideas—of the fines, of the fights over how the cat litter bounty would be spent. I was giddy projecting all the outcomes. That evening, there was a typed notice on the community mailbox. It read:
All cat litter in the common area will be removed and disposed of on [set date].
The Condominium Association
There was no mention of the litter’s mysterious appearance, but I’ll be damned if they fine me for my cat-less cat litter or force me to remove it on the association’s schedule. It made me happy to know someone had to type those fourteen words. Two days after the first note, all the cat litter was gone. I hadn’t lifted a finger in executing their notice—except for the nine trips I made up and down the stairs carrying the cat litter. Other than that, I hadn’t complied with their demands.
Christmas season arrived, and there was still no baby. We didn’t travel to see anyone for Christmas as part of our self-imposed couple exile. For Christmas, I planned to give my wife a framed photo. This particular photo was taken during New York City’s Fleet Week at a ball we attended during the week’s festivities. The weeklong event featured port visits by much of the navy’s eastern fleet out of Norfolk, Virginia. There were parades, military recognition at sporting events, and a couple of swanky balls. At one of the balls put on by the mayor, I was in my navy dress whites and my wife was in a strapless black gown. I don’t need to tell you that she looked stunning. From the photo alone you could guess her attractiveness just by the way the other dinner guests were captured, all craning their necks to stare at my wife. The navy cameraman, who shot the photo, caught us just as she sat down and as I was pushing in the high back of her chair. To my wife’s delight, the British movie actress Keira Knightly and her date were looking directly at her from the photo backdrop. I planned to have “Head Turner”inscribed in calligraphy at the bottom of the photo—I knew she would love it.
For $7.63, I could buy that photo, cropped and edited at my local Walmart. After a twenty-five minute wait in a customer service line that doubled as a photo development center, I finally arrived at my human-to-human interaction.
“There’s a problem with the photo,”the clerk remarked, pointing to a pricing bar code and a typed note that read “COPYRIGHT.”
A different employee, a service manager, gestured toward the copyright notice and asked if the photo featured a celebrity. Technically it did, but only in the background.
“It’s my wife and me at Fleet Week,” I told the manager.
“Where are you then?” she asked.
The manager flipped open the blue-and-white Walmart envelope and pointed to the women, my wife, and then to Keira Knightly. I explained that I wasn’t in the picture because I had cropped myself out and that I had planned this whole “Head Turner” photo frame for Christmas. I also explained that I was married to the pretty woman in the photo. The clerk looked back at his manager, and then back toward me; once more to the manager, and then shook his head.
“Copyright infringement is serious—I can’t,” the clerk semi-apologized. He had the pictures just across the desk from me, it was December twenty-third, and I still didn’t have my wife’s present.
I had been skeptical that the bomb buyback policy was going to work. “Won’t the insurgents just sell us their junk bombs to make more bombs?”everyone thought. On the first day of the bomb buyback program, there were over thirty men lined up outside of our outpost’s security barrier. Except for prayers and shuras, I had never seen so many men gathered in one place. Guards and translators conveyed to the crowd that they should leave space between themselves in case one of them had a faulty device that suddenly exploded. I honestly didn’t think any of those turn-ins could be real, and was shocked when the first farmer in line produced a nearly completed IED—it was only missing a power source to be fully functional. He was paid in a combination of flour and cash. Cash could cover your debts, and flour could fill your belly. Another man, someone who owned an orchard in the nearest village, delivered three sacks of homemade explosives that had been hidden near his walls by “men he couldn’t understand.” He received no flour and some cash according to the buyback policy. Finally, after several partial device turn-ins, we had our first fraudster: a man, who was searched twice because he was acting nervous, had attempted to trade in a non-bomb, an old cooking timer tied with string (not even copper wire) to a sack of regular fertilizer. No fuel, no power source, nothing. The disposal team that provided device review shook their heads. It had never been a bomb, and no real bomber would have wasted their time on the item. At best, it was a training item that registered zero bank notes or sacks of flour for trade-in. The fraudster, a wiry, well-tanned man, was transfixed by the flour and cash behind the translator and bomb disposal engineers. When the disposal team shook their collective heads, the fraudster yelled something in Pashtuo. I was later told he had claimed “King Zahir’s mustache is missing from the money! The Americans are using fakes!” which explains why, in an attempt to stave off a panic in the line, our translator stupidly grabbed a stack of money, within arm’s reach of the fraudster, and pointed to King Zahir’s image and his pencil mustache on the Afghanibanknote, yelling, “It is not a fake! We pay good money!” The fraudster, seeing his payday before him, grabbed a thick wad of bills from the translator with minimal tussle and took off through the line. Security at our post, with weapons trained outward, were caught off guard by the man sprinting away from the explosive triage tent. In a moment of wisdom, the lead force protection officer decided it would make for a poor public relations story if it appeared that those participating in the bomb buyback program were being shot. No one fired at the fraudster, and he galloped back to his village, loaded up on mustachioed Afghani banknotes.
The Walmart clerk, the one who had the photo of my wife, wouldn’t budge on the copyright policy.
“If you have written permission from those in the photo then you can have the photo,” the clerk told me, citing a policy that couldn’t have ever been followed.
“Written permission from Ms. Knightley’s publicist?” I said, rephrasing his instruction to tease out the implied absurdity.
There was still a line of ten to fifteen people behind me, and impatience was building. The photos were already printed, but I couldn’t purchase them.
“Are you going to throw them out? They’re already printed!” I pointed out.
“No, we can wait until you get permission, and we’ll keep them until then,” the clerk responded.
“This isn’t layaway! It’s Christmas. I won’t get permission in time—no, no one would actually get permission from someone official. Besides it’s my wife!” I yelled.
These points were lost on the clerk, who still held the envelope. I placed a ten-dollar bill on the counter, and perhaps in the first Walmart bribe grossing less than three dollars, said in a cheerful voice, “So, I can pay for it now, and I don’t need a receipt.”
The clerk exhaled, a little sad to be torn between his manager’s demands, Walmart policy, copyright infringement, and my alleged Christmas gift. He shook his head again, this time offering a softer, more apologetic, “I can’t.” If I could just absolve him of his Walmart duties, I reasoned, then maybe he could be my accomplice—then genius struck.
“Can I at least have all my photos that I developed from the zoo?” I asked with a tone of indignation.
“People take photos at the zoo, right? And then have them developed at a Walmart?” I wondered.The clerk, a bit surprised that he hadn’t seen the zoo photos as of yet, leaned into the cashier’s counter to open the envelope. Before he could discover all the non-existent photos of rhinos and orangutans, I snatched the envelope from his hand. The clerk gave a slight tug back on the paper envelope, but at this point I had too much of my existence wrapped up in this photo to let that few ounces escape from my grip. I briefly snapped out of my delirium, shouted, “Keep the money!” and sprinted out the first double doors of the Walmart, ducking through a couple of parked cars to lose anyone following me. I doubled back through the parking lot to my own car and peeled out onto a service road. “Did I just steal $7.63,” I asked myself. At the first red light, I pulled my SIM card from my phone so I couldn’t be tracked by a Walmart task force, and then, reviewing my actions, decided that, yes, that behavior was indeed a little manic. SIM card back in, I called my wife to let her know I love her and that I’m done Christmas shopping.
It’s four months in, and we are in the sonogram room again: different technician; same blue goo. This time, we are braced for casualty reports. We’re not first-time deployers; we can’t be surprised. I close my eyes and listen, holding on to my wife’s hand. Her grip is crushing. The sonogram starts. First, there is the seventy-beats-a-minute pounding of my wife’s heart. Then, after a four-second pause of silence and sonogram shuffling, we hear a second heartbeat. That heartbeat is audibly faster, around one hundred forty beats per minute. The pulsing doesn’t stop; it’s strong. The technician is now merely a side character in our little three-person drama. She does tell us—but certainly doesn’t need to—that there is a baby in my wife’s tummy, and it’s alive and healthy. And like in the movies, the tech asks, “Would you like to know the gender of your baby?” I do defer to my wife, and she does want to know the gender. There is nothing to hide or run from in the hospital lobby. Not only are the balloons and pregnant mothers safe territory, but there is a happy sheen to everything in northern Virginia. Snippy condo notices and incompetent sales staff all seem more tolerable. I have important things to do now: a nursery to prepare, day cares to investigate, and diapers to buy in bulk. My baby son is almost halfway through his nine-month deployment, and I want to be ready for his arrival.