Mail Order Babies by Mika Taylor
Associate fiction editor Michael Giddings on today’s story: In “Mail Order Babies,” Mika Taylor asks questions about love. Where does love come from? Is it possible to chase it? Can it be manufactured, shipped, and artificially incubated in a pan of warm milk? And, seriously, what compels us to look for love in the first place? Of course we’re driven to propagate the species, but Taylor questions our assumptions about that as well. Here, we are reminded of a self-sustaining part of the soul that is often overlooked. The babies, no matter how they’re packaged, call for us to tap into a well of love that quietly rejuvenates itself, unabated by all the social pressures of the world.
Mail Order Babies
They came in a packet like pop rocks or seeds, plain brown paper and simple instructions: Add milk. Keep warm. Love. There were no pictures on the side, no happy families, no sea monkey king and queen. Smart marketing from the baby people. Yours to imagine.
She didn’t open it right away, kept it tucked in a drawer, didn’t pour the milk in the pan, left the heat lamp cold and dark in its corner, unplugged. Though she was glad she had them, she wasn’t quite ready to have them, not yet. There was still a chance of meeting someone – that eventual pair bonding that everyone seemed to expect – the love that novels and pop songs promised. That could happen still.
But it didn’t. It was probably her fault. She’d long since stopped going to bars and was too exhausted by expectation to bother with dating sites or setups. There were too many men out there who didn’t understand her, too many people period. It was probably unethical to make the babies she’d bought, burden the world with more. It was probably unethical to leave them there in their packet though too, unmothered, unconceived. Realistically, if she decided not to have them, she could send them back, recoup all but her deposit, and they would go to some other mother and be born all the same. So maybe ethics were not the issue.
The guarantee had said that while a few always sprouted, the most viable of the Foetussen was usually the one to take. There was no danger of being overwhelmed by multiples, but still she was overwhelmed by the multiple possibilities the packet contained: the specter of a bright boy with hazel eyes, skinned knees, and an ear for music like her father, the chance of a wiggling newborn who refused to sleep, wrecking her nights only to melt into her shoulder at dawn with a weight and warmth that broke her heart, or a girl so much like herself that eventually they wouldn’t be able to stand one another, fighting and cursing and loving in wretched and violent ways. It was all just too much.
So she waited, kept herself as open as she could – not so open that she talked to strangers in the park or called up the exes she found on the internet – but open nonetheless. She spent evenings at home sipping tea, reading, waiting, not looking at the packet in the drawer.
“We’re worried about you,” her parents opined.
“You’ve stopped trying.”
“Please,” they begged. “Go out. Meet someone.” They pleaded and pestered and needled and nudged until they found someone for her, a man whose parents they had talked to at a party, sharing that intimate connection of grandchildlessness. Grand childlessness.
She didn’t want to go, but somehow she found herself at a restaurant on a weeknight conversing with this stranger about the change of seasons. He had kind eyes and hair that curled in so many unexpected directions that it seemed both contained and wildly unkempt. And she actually liked the things he had to say about religion and social justice. And he actually listened when she told him about her suburban childhood. And somewhere over the third glass of wine she found herself laughing deeply in a way she hadn’t in quite some time. It was him. He was there and this was something.
When she’d first ordered the packet online, she had wondered when she would start to love her baby. She hadn’t known if it would happen when the mail finally came, or weeks later when she unwrapped and engaged the self-guiding implantation apparatus. Maybe there had to be something inside of her, growing. Or would it all start when the baby was finally birthed and in her arms, focusing for the first time on her face as she focused on its? Her biggest fear was that she could never love it, that she would be as disconnected from her child as she was from most of humanity. But now, as this newly met man smiled and joked and worked his way through dessert, she realized that the thing had already happened. The seeds had germinated, sprouted, taken root. So much so that it was not her date that she thought about, even as he touched her cheek at the end of the evening. She might see him again and that might be good, but the blooming she felt was not about him at all. Her mind had already left him behind, walked up the avenue past sodium streetlights and ducked underground at the nearest subway stop to ride the next train home. By the time she said good night, her heart was already far from that place, unlocking the door to her empty apartment, pulling the packet from its drawer, plugging in the heat lamp, pouring the milk into its pan.
Mika Taylor lives in Willimantic, Connecticut (a.k.a. Romantic Willimantic, a.k.a. Heroin Town USA, a.k.a. Thread City, a.k.a. Vulture Town) with her writer husband, PR Griffis, and Petunia von Scampers their crime-solving dog. You can read more of her work at The Kenyon Review Online, The Collagist, Tin House, Necessary Fiction, and Guernica.