Dave heard through friends that Margaret had had the baby, and came to the apartment one evening a couple of months after Matthew was born.
“Leave us alone, Dave,” Margaret said through the cracked door. “You made it very clear you didn’t want anything to do with this.”
“Look—I’m sorry, Margaret. I was angry. I was scared. But I have a right to see my son.”
“You could have seen him when he was born. You could have seen him when he got his new tank. I notice you haven’t really been clamoring to help pay for his filters and shrimp, and I notice you’ve never offered to stay with him while I’m at work. Why now, Dave? Why are you here?”
Dave’s eyes filled—something Margaret had never seen before. “I miss you, Margaret, and I want to see our child. I was afraid, I made a mistake. I can do better, I promise. We could be a family.”
Margaret relented, reluctantly. She let Dave in and showed him Matthew’s tank. Matthew was shy at first and hid behind the coral, one golden eye peeking out at his parents, but Margaret coaxed him toward the top of the tank and soon he had twined tentacles around both their wrists. Dave wiped his nose and eyes, “it’s not what I thought it would be like, being a parent,” he said.
That night Dave stayed for dinner, helping Margaret feed Matthew and reading him stories when it was time for bed. He stayed overnight, and made love to Margaret tenderly. It was the first time a man had touched her since she’d told Dave she was pregnant, and she thought this must be what it felt like to be Matthew: drawing nourishment from another’s flesh, tasting his closeness and warmth, the solidity of his presence.
In the morning, the three had breakfast together, Margaret showing Dave how to fill the plastic baby bottle with shrimp and then watching with him while Matthew’s limber arms gracefully found the lid and unscrewed it, releasing the tiny creatures into the soft purse of his small body.
“I’ll call you,” Dave said, holding Margaret and kissing her gently at the door as he headed off for his job at the garage. “I love you.”
That day at work Margaret was distracted and couldn’t stop smiling. It was almost Christmas and the store was full of shoppers buying slippers and Chia pets, computers and watches. She sold several heart-shaped pendants set with cubic zirconia to earnest boyfriends and husbands who asked for her opinion on a romantic gift. “She’ll love this,” Margaret said, as she rang up the purchases. “Beautiful and classic. She’ll think of you each time she feels it against her skin.”
Dave didn’t call her that night, nor did she hear from him for the rest of the week. She sat in her dim apartment, which she’d decorated for Christmas with a plastic tree and a couple of strings of colored lights, and waited for the phone to ring. She’d hung a little sprig of plastic mistletoe over the archway that separated the small kitchen area from the rest of the apartment, and after the fifth day that he didn’t call or come over she ripped it down in a fit of rage and stomped on it. The sprig was indestructible, though, and kept bouncing back into shape, which made Margaret even angrier. Finally she took a pair of scissors to it, cut it into tiny, sharp shreds of plastic which she flushed down the toilet. She leaned against the bowl, watching the green and white remnants circle the drain hole and disappear, and she wept breathlessly into her sleeves. In the other room Matthew lay still in his tank, only the willowy ends of his eight arms moving nervously, his eyes wide.
When a week had gone by and Dave still hadn't called, Margaret took the bus on her lunch hour to the garage where he worked. She brought him a ham sandwich from the counter at K-Mart and a couple of prints of photos she'd taken of Matthew playing with a plastic pirate ship.
“Oh hey, Margaret,” Dave’s boss Pete said when she walked into the office. He shuffled some grease-smeared papers around on the counter. “I guess you’re looking for Dave.”
“Is he around?” Margaret asked.
Pete tugged at his left ear. “Sorry, Margaret—I think he’s on his break. Do you want to leave him a message?”