Everywhere I go, people are talking about my daughter.
“Where in the world did that come from,” they say.
Or, “That’s not a real person. I can’t believe that.”
They use coarse language. “What the fuck,” said an old woman at Dunkin Donuts. “What the fuck is that,” she went on. The girl at the counter said nothing. She merely served me and Gilda, averting her eyes from Gilda.
She goes wherever I go: to the supermarket, to the plasma bank, to the regular bank. I once overheard the bank manager say, “We need to shut off those cameras. That baby should not be on camera.”
Today I was walking with Gilda to get the bus downtown—she is walking on her own, now, finally—and we passed a news crew. A reporter was saying something about a fire, standing in front of a building that was not on fire. I stood and watched. Gilda watched, too, until the reporter saw her and trailed off midsentence. She stood silently, then, with the microphone held to her face. I could tell she was trying not to gag. The camerawoman turned and saw Gilda, and without hesitating pointed the camera at Gilda, as if she were the news.
I picked up my girl and got her out of there.
Gilda does not comprehend, of course, the things people say and the reactions they have to the sight of her. When they grimace, she thinks they’re smiling. She smiles back, or does the closest thing she can to smiling.
I am the only one, other than Gilda, who has seen Gilda smile and known what she was seeing.
On the maternity ward, twenty months ago, where I was ordered not to walk with Gilda in the hallways, and to keep the curtains drawn at all times, a nurse took a long look at Gilda as she slept on my chest. The day before then, my daughter was not even a person, but now here she was: a whole living creature, small and baffling. I was watching her sleep.
I felt the nurse standing there before I looked up to see her. As she leaned on my bed and breathed through her mouth, I thought she might say something nice about Gilda, something only I have ever done. Instead, she said, “I don’t want to think what you did to deserve that.
“What a mess,” she said.
“I give that child sixteen years,” she said then, and then she checked my blood pressure.
She didn’t mean that Gilda would surely succumb to an illness by the time she turned sixteen, which is what I thought she meant at first.
She meant the same thing I have heard from Gilda’s grandparents, from the police, and from the day care coordinators who have roundly rejected her, to keep her from troubling the other children. What they mean by what they say is that Gilda is a guaranteed suicide, that if she doesn’t steal away in the night and drown herself in the river by the time she turns eight—by which age she will no doubt understand what it means when grown men scurry in fear when she comes near—then she will do it no more than eight years later. By then, she’ll be able to drive a car. She could plow it into a brick wall with enough force to end her own life.
Or drink poison. Or use a knife.
I have wondered, at times, if I should have terminated the pregnancy, the way the doctors urged me to. “She will have no kind of life,” one said. “She will never be happy,” said the other. “She will never be a real little girl.”
It was the first time two doctors stood before me and slandered Gilda, but it wouldn’t be the last.
In defiance, and out of love, I have hung on to my daughter. And I will not let go, no matter how hard it can be, no matter what regrets I have.
And I have had regrets. I have taken measures to try to relieve myself of the unique burden Gilda can be. Those measures failed, and at the times that they failed I was devastated.
I am not devastated now.
Need I even say that despite the times my love has faltered—when I looked on her with the wrong eyes, when I didn’t see her for who she is—Gilda is, to me, the most beautiful thing in the world? That the musk she gives off is, to me, a sweet perfume? That there is nothing I would rather see, come morning, than her grinning, groggy, crooked little mouth?
Hers is the face I dream of at night. In anyone else’s sleep it would be a nightmare, I know; a social worker told me so, and I will not forgive her for it.
But Gilda is always glad to see me. She can’t stand for me to go away. No one has loved me the way she does, and so I will be the one who loves her as no one else will.
Vestigial tail or no vestigial tail, eyestalks or no eyestalks, flippers and claws or no flippers and claws, I love Gilda. These mistakes in her biology, which no one can explain, make no difference to me. She is mine, and she is beautiful.
A hostess at Denny’s once said, “This child will have no shelf life.” It was, somehow, the most painful thing of all for me to hear.
Her words made Gilda something perishable. To the hostess, a girl not much more than sixteen herself, Gilda was a spoiled can of peaches, a small container of death and botulism.
The bitch walked away. Gilda gave her bouncing ponytail an enormous laugh.
If I could, I would flush all the statements like these out of my memory. But there would only be more horrid things said the next day, and the next. No, I cannot make myself forget the doctors, the nurses, the carnies who deemed her too horrible even for their sideshow. I was at my very weakest, when I tried this grim alternative to raising her myself. In tears, I begged them to take her part time, “like a daycare,” since all the real daycares rejected her.
Gilda will not know I sought that fate for her. And I will not let her go.
It doesn’t matter that I don’t know what she is. I will be, for as long as I can be, a dynamo that turns the fear and hatred felt for Gilda into love—an engine fueled by the worst the world at large can pour onto the head of a little girl. I am here to sublimate it all, on her behalf, into a mother’s devotion.
She can chew the ends off all my fingers, if that’s how it must be. She can have everything, if she wants it. I am here to sustain this girl for as long as I can in a world that has already failed her.
Robert Long Foreman’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared most recently in Copper Nickel, Redivider, Booth, Hobart, Fourth Genre, and the 2014 Pushcart anthology. He teaches at Rhode Island College.