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"The Surrogate" by Jessie Lifton

We had signed up for the program because my wife wanted it. And it was easier to go along with her than to admit my own desires, even to myself. Happy wife. Happy life. My wife was not beautiful. She had never been beautiful. She had medium blonde hair, and skin that stretched too tightly against her small sparrow bones. I sometimes watched her, from the corner of my eye, sitting on our California King, feeling like a voyeur, as she applied layer and layer of cream over her ever sagging jowls. My wife was not beautiful. But she got what she wanted, even so.


We ended up, five weeks after the initial interviews with the agency, being assigned a surrogate. The girl was small. Five foot one, maybe. She told us she was eighteen. I believed her. We met the first time at a Sweetgreen. She and my wife huddled together, forming a small circle I could not enter into, even if I wanted to, over their bowls of half cooked quinoa. They were talking about things I didn’t care about. Makeup brands. Periods. Fertility. Life plans. This girl was eighteen and lived in a one bedroom apartment, her boyfriend’s Mom’s apartment. The girl didn’t like to talk about her parents. The boyfriend, she said, didn’t care that she was going to be a surrogate. They lived together in the pull out bed in the living room, and the Mother, the fat bitch Mother, got the whole bedroom to herself. But I didn’t learn all of that then, and not from her. I learnt that later. From Him.


Instead we talked a great deal about genetics. I felt a bit like a low ranking Nazi soldier, a Nazi’s physician assistant. The kind of Nazi who didn’t hate the Jews, just didn’t give a shit. The kind of Nazi who wanted to see how far you could push the limits of human cruelty. My wife, she was Goebbels, or whoever the fuck the head honcho was back then. WWI was always my area of interest in school. I could never give a shit about any of the other wars. WWI was what started it all, see? Four years of never ending blood and mud and trench foot, and at the end of it all, there remained the delusional hope that life could ever return to normal. After WWII nothing interesting ever happened again. With the atom bomb dropping came the annihilation of history. But World War One still had a sick sort of hope inside of it. That flicker, that last inch of dying light, that was what caught my attention.


My wife asked a lot of questions. What diseases have you had? How regular are your periods? Are you deficient in any vitamins? Is there a history of heart disease in your family? What religion are you? Where is your family from?


“No. Healthy. Regular. Not deficient. No. Protestant. From America?”


“No. But before that.”


What my wife wanted to know: are you a dirty little ItalianIrishPolishJewArabTurk? What are you? What are you worth on the open market?


“I think, Sweden. I think.”


My wife looked like she was about to cum. I couldn’t take it. Even the physician's assistant can have his say. I gripped at my wilting plastic-free fork, the wooden fibers leaking into my massaged kale.

 

“What’s his name?”


She turned to me, for the first time all day, looking not in my eyes but at my forehead.


“Who?”


Who? The man willing to let his girlfriend whore herself for 10k. Christ. It was like talking to a fucking dog.

 

“Your boyfriend, sweetheart.”


“Mark.”


Mark. Mark. I didn’t look at my wife, but felt her stiffen. Outside, in the rain, people scuttled by underneath awnings, flocking into the inside of their Ubers.

 

There was nothing for it. I had to meet him. Mark. Mark. Mark. Mark. Red dot over my eye, Mark. Crying on the couch all night, dark hair and blue eyes. X marks the spot. My head, aching, phantom pains. Mark. A whole drawer full of things locked away.


Mark was the kind of handsome you only really ever saw these days on movie screens. Black, curling hair. Blue eyes. His face was perfectly proportional. His nose was almost upturned, but had a small bump in it. He had the face of someone who should not have ever suffered. But who managed it all the same. The dark bags under his eyes spoke to that. We sat, the two of us, on a park bench, while my wife and his girlfriend gushed over the sonogram. Over the life that was now growing somewhere between them, growing with nowhere to go.

 

Mark is what I would have liked my son to look like, years ago. They would have been the same age now, too. My Mark, Mark, was only a baby, eighteen years ago, when he gasped out under some invisible weight of living. The hole in his heart, is what the doctors said. Like he had been stabbed through with a bayonet. Suffering like a soldier in No Man’s Land for days, forgotten. His body lank in my arms, too heavy to carry. All babies have blue eyes, they say. This Mark was twenty, but his eyes were just as blue. A two year difference. There are a million other lives he could have lived.


“...Then I had to quit. Tore my hamstring. And the concussion thing, got like. Brain damage or shit now. So I had to quit.”


He’d been telling me the same inane story three times over the last hour, about the end of what would have been an illustrious football career. I wanted to string him up on top of my bed, strip him out of his hoodie, his sweatpants, his socks and boxers. And stare at him, gleaming white under the fluorescent lights, vulnerable and beautiful. Just stare at him.


“You’re too pretty for football.”


Obviously I didn’t say that out loud. I felt like the rabbit, snared in by his dedication to un-living. He was going nowhere fast. He needed guidance from someone who had their life together. Someone like me. Sitting there, staring at nothing. He couldn’t be trusted with a woman. Look at what he’d let his girlfriend do: sell her womb to the highest bidder. It would be better if he were locked in a house somewhere, a kitchen, barefoot. I could keep him from prying eyes. My Mark. Hole in his heart, bleeding out all over the withering grass. What could bloom from a flower but the face of eternal decay, unbecoming. A million petals pressed into the pages, an anvil crushing them together into a dullgiving pink. Copies of copies.

 

A bum passed us by, screaming obscenities. Mark remained utterly unconcerned. Completely blank, his eyes. The girls came back over to us, smiling. And now this baby. I stared at the girl’s bulging stomach, something sick inside of me. An irrational desire to strip naked and press myself into the dirty duckridden pond.


My Mark, buried in such a small coffin. My Mark, washed underneath the warm water of the bath, tepid so as not to burn his porcelain skin. Waiting weeks, as he grew smaller and smaller, tubes connecting his palm sized body. You could hold the entirety of his life in the palm of your hand. His agony.


Babies die all the time.


Some things aren’t agreed upon, they just slot into place. That was me and Mark. Twice a week, we met at the same park, sitting and talking about nothing. Watching the ducks in the pond make fools out of themselves.

 

He wore a sweatshirt every time we met, a different color, but always dark. It didn’t matter the weather. He wore sweatpants, sometimes jeans if he seemed to be in a particularly good mood. Some days his pupils were blown and he leaned his head on the back of the bench, somewhere between living and sleep. I could imagine him, instead lying in the trenches, his head against a muddy wall. His eyes would be closed against the rain, against the pain of a different kind of boredom. Those were Mark’s bad days. He had a great deal of bad days, my Mark.

 

Seven months into the arrangement his girlfriend was demanding ice cream every other day. My wife was driving me up the wall screaming in our foyer about how ice cream was bad for the baby and couldn’t this stupid fucking white trash whore bitch listen to her?! I was home too often. At the practice litigation had stalled on a class action suit. My client being sued for “false advertising claims,” i.e., claiming that there was strawberry in his strawberry flavored slushie. To be frank, he was guilty. But what did you expect? It was a goddamned slushie.


Seven months in I grew tired of siege warfare, of sitting in the muck with Mark and watching the lines shift back and forth on the map, moving nowhere. I suggested we go hunting. His eyes lit up, and he smiled at me. Like the sun shining down from on high. Christ. The power of a truly beautiful man is enough to anchor the turning Earth. My arms were shaking inside my Patagonia vest. The ground, layers of calcified Earth, down to the very core. The whole Earth was shaking beneath the weight of his easy grin.


We met at seven a.m. the next morning.


He’d never had a father, he told me. Just his mother. When he talked about her his teeth were clenched. One of the first real bursts of emotion I’d been able to jog out of him. I asked about how he met his girlfriend.

 

“Tif. She was in my Spanish class. She was really nice. Didn’t listen to what anyone said. She wants to do things. She has all these big dreams. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t stop staring at her from that first week. Would beg her to help me with my homework. Don’t know why she’s with me.”


I could tell him. If he really wanted to know. But he didn’t. She was with him because he was handsome and easy and let her live rent free. He was with her because she was pretty in a non-threatening way, that is, less attractive than him, and a “go-getter.” A “good-girl.” She could fix the hole inside of his left ventricle, which my genes left for him through miles of blackened longing, through life and death itself. She couldn’t. It wasn’t the kind of hole that did anything but killed. All it would do is suck her inside of its infinite depths. From one man to the next. We were alike in that regard. She was nice. She was nice, meaning, she wouldn’t hurt him. Meaning she wasn’t big enough to hurt him, wasn’t tall enough. She was his ticket to a good life. Except plans were falling through, weren’t they? Resorting to surrogacy. To whoredom. Tsk. Tsk. Bad kids. Not enough positive influence. Falling through the cracks all the time, through the floorboards that line the executioner’s block.


Mark didn’t know how to set up the scope right. We sat out, in the biting cold, and I adjusted his grip. We laid on our stomachs in the brush, barebellied, bright orange dots. Side by side. We didn’t have to talk. I glanced over at him, and caught him staring. For hours, I thought, I could sit like this. With my Mark. My Mark. There was a fleck of green inside his iris.


A buck wandered into my sight. Calm as anything.

 

It doesn’t know it’s dead yet, is the thought that came to me. The deer doesn’t know he’s dead yet. It still holds hope in its heart.


I leant over Mark’s young body, my mouth to his ear.


“There you go, Son. Take the shot.”


Only I could feel him trembling. From the cold, maybe. His eyes were trembling as well.

 

He doesn’t know he’s dead yet.


His finger hesitated on the trigger, so I placed my hand on his back, and pressed with force. You need to mean it. You need to possess the killer instinct, if you want to survive. And Mark would survive. I wanted him to survive. To do well. He was funny. He had a joke for everything, a dry sense of humor. He liked to eat at Sonic, he liked milkshakes. He had horrible acne below his left ear. He liked to play video games. He was too skinny for his own good. He wanted to be an engineer.


He wouldn’t pull the trigger.


Five minutes of endless waiting, I bent over my own rifle, and let my finger gentle, and then red, and the buck dropped dead onto its side. Mark, beside me, flinched. Simple as anything. I got up to examine the body, but he stayed there, lying on his stomach, begging me for something with his eyes that he could not say out loud. Like a woman, from behind he looked like a woman. I averted my eyes, disgusted. Dead souls cannot be expected to be as strong as real men. I needed to have more empathy for his situation.


“Get up.”


But, really, David Beatty didn’t get through the hell of the Battle of Jutland lying on his stomach like a woman. He claimed German property without remorse, without guilt. Boats that were not his to requisition. He didn’t care. Because he knew he would be the victor. He had hope for a better world, through the annals of violence he worked with the pickaxe of hope and forced his way through to the other side. Back into society.


It wouldn’t do Mark any good, lying there like a girl. He needed to learn to pick up his weapon, how to tear through limestone with his bare hands with his teeth biting at the hard Earth until it cracked open.


“Get up!”


Mark stood up, a soldier at attention. We dragged the buck, heavy as it was, a whole mile back to the truck, covering ourselves inadvertently in its gore. The sun was high in the sky, but there was a biting wind which kept you from getting comfortable. The scent of drying nickel and rotting animal. Mark would look good with slicked back hair, I thought, as he uncapped a bottle of water with blood covered hands, and started taking long gulps, his Adam’s apple, armed with small nicks, bobbing. No one had taught him how to shave. I’d have to rectify that.


By the eighth month of our whore’s pregnancy, my wife began to grow restless. I was surprised she waited this long to bring up the subject. Things at work were going better, so I was able to manage working at the office for maybe twelve hours a day. And then days off were for Mark, of course. So maybe it was that we just hadn’t seen enough of each other. I imagined her pacing, waiting for me to come home, anger on the tip of her lips, resentful of my having a purpose, and her having none. Nothing. Destroyed utterly by a miserly life and fading good looks. Waiting to bring up the conversation over a cooling dinner I would not be there to attend. Going to sleep thinking about it, waiting for me. I’d been driving at nights lately, for an hour or more. Playing the Spotify playlist Mark made for me, full of electronic music that reminded me of New Order but somehow worse. It was charming, the air of annoyance he put on when he discovered I didn’t have the app. I remember, there on the bench, our bench, he grabbed the phone out of my hand and put it up to my face to unlock it, hands flying faster than I could track, cracking a grin at me.


“There, Mr. H. Now you gotta add me, see? And I can share my playlists with you. They’re good. Like, I dunno what you like. But I could make you one? I make them for all the guys.”


It sounded like heaven.


One song, I would play on repeat as I watched the suburban monstrosities, all built in the year 1973 (you could tell from the shitty wooden siding), of our neighborhood crawl past, had a girl whining at the top of her lungs, “YOU’RE NESTING UNDER THE CORRIDOR ADOLESCENT FIANCE I’M JUST FLESH TO GIVE AWAY” and no other lyrics, none really. Just noise, synthesizers working beyond their natural capacity, and her little girl wails, chirp chirp like a bird. It was awful. But it came from Mark, so it was beautiful. I did not wince. I let it grow on me, the heavy bass, like a weed, like ivy leaves. And I began to like it. Force-feeding myself his interests. If I could do it well enough I could grow inside of him just the same, taking up every inch of space inside his skin. I pictured him, listening to the same words, nesting under the corridor, five miles away, in his rundown apartment, smoking weed, vaping what he called “the best shit ever—blue rasberry fucking dope Mr. H-” in his boxers and the ever present sweatshirt. I imagined his earthshattering smile all for me beneath those LED lights all the kids seemed to like. The neon, unable to shift his face into hard lines, just more softness as color shifted red to blue to green.

 

“What about baby names? Violet, maybe. For my mother. A family name would be good.”


My wife, interrupting, per usual.


We had elected not to know the sex yet, and my wife never brought up the idea of male names. Small mercies are answered every day. If it was a boy…


I turned the bedside light off, and turned over on my side, and let her have her way.


“Violet sounds great.”


She touched my shoulder, turning me over to face her. Fine, then. If it can’t be avoided.


Inside of her I thrust myself with abandon, thinking of a dark tunnel with no end, where I would never emerge. I thought of blue eyes with a green speck inside of them. I thought of a heart, a head, with a hole in them. I thought of a helmet falling on the field, a nameless General bleeding out, a wounded soldier, and very brave. I thought of quivering Mark, who under my gaze skinned the buck and placed the meat into the freezer. Very brave. I thought of his height. Tall enough to play football. Tall enough. Taller than me. Tall enough not to drown. I thought of him driven through with holes. I thought of never ending darkness inside of him, doors disappearing. He doesn’t know he’s dead yet. I came to the image of his face in repose, looking up at me, asking, “Is that right? Am I doing it right?”

 

Like I was a common sort of God. Like I was his common sort of God.

 

Mark and I sat in the waiting room, side by side, uninvited into the inner sanctum. He gripped the lapels of his chore coat tight. The weather had gotten too cold for the sweatshirt. Now he had to layer. He worried his hands. He paced back and forth. The girl was in pain, probably. Induced labor. So maybe not. I hoped this baby died. A horrible thought. There would be no history. Not after this. This was the end of the whole world. The flat map which you fell off the side of. Fukuyama’s insistence on eternity. This would be eternity.


I stared down at it. Twelve and a half hours later. I stared down at it, Mark by my side. A little boy. Unnamed. With brown eyes. half-Asian, I thought. I wanted to take the pillow, and smother it. Nothing. Nothing here to see but antipathy. Mark looked as unfeeling as ever. A ghost of a man. Dead for eighteen whole years and still standing, infected by the apathy of the ghost. He swayed on his feet. We, tied together by a string of incomprehension. I took him by the elbow. The girl, in bed, was crying, being held by Mark’s fat mother. My wife, grabbing the baby, held it to her breast. The ugly little thing began to wail. The girl called for it. My wife was saying something to her. A nurse was crowding, hesitant. A real scene of domestic terror. Christ. At this rate the cops would be called any second.


I guided Mark out of the bloodroom. And through the hallways. And into a deserted exam room. He looked through me.


“It didn’t look like me.”


“No.”


“Or you.”


“No.”


He was unsure.


“Why doesn’t it look like me?”


“I don’t know.”


Sometimes you need to lie. If you love something enough. You need to lie to keep it living.


“Frank. I’ve never…I just wanted to thank you. I’ve never had anyone be so kind to me. Without wanting something in return. I…you know I never had a dad. But, these past nine months. You’ve been so nice to me. What I mean…”


I placed my hand on his cheek, lightly stubbled, with a cold sore over his pouting lip. His earnestness was making me sick. His eyes jumped to mine. Realization seemed to set in after only two seconds. Two endless seconds, his eye in my scope. I gripped his cheek tighter. My hand on his shoulder.


“Mark. Mark.”


His eyes darted to the door. But I had locked it earlier. Now it was only the two of us. Me and my small ghost. He knew it too. He had nowhere else to go.

 

“My son was named Mark.”


“You…?”


His voice cracked. I brought his lips to mine. He began to cry. My sweet doe.


“He died, when he was a baby. Shh… Everything is alright. Everything is going to be okay. I’m here.”


And then, like a good animal, he dropped his head to my shoulder, shaking with a singular sob. He had gone limp. Maneuvering his head to face me, I noticed he had a popped blood vessel on the white of his eye, right beside the fleck of green.


“He would have looked like you, I think.”


When I let go he dropped to the ground, a heap of long limbs, waiting for his next order. I didn’t have one to give him. I couldn’t pull the trigger.


“I’ll protect you, Mark.”


He had nowhere else to go. And neither did I. And we both knew it. He was different than what my son would have become. Weaker, at tenderhooks. Bleeding all over in festering wounds, blue and purple, his skin sallow. On his knees, on the cold tile, the smell of overpowering bleach, my finger gentled on the trigger. I realized that I loved him not for his name, but the same reason he had once loved me. A second too late. A dot of red, his eye filled the field of my vision, accusing.


He had been kind to me. I had not known what it was to kill beautiful flesh. The sound it made, no sound at all. I have killed animals. I have killed women. I have smothered their hope and even then they came back to me, not as ghosts, but as monstrous flesh, beasts of battle. Mark was no beast. I am not dead yet. I am not dead. The red dot inside his eye, a hole inside the blood vessel. When the drop comes I will know and I will not linger. There is nowhere to go but through him and out the other end of his dying. The green in his eye and not the blue. My son would not have had green in his eyes, not ever. I had loved him in those hours spent on the dirty park bench. Even with his stupidity, like a master loves his sheepdog I had grown to hold him in my heart, separately, where nothing else could touch, no malice or cruelty, except for mine. The red overtakes, and like a fly I linger on his corpse, sucking at his open wounds. Things not left by me. If I could get my mouth around his tender open flesh, I could suck out the poison. We could go back, maybe. I could turn back time. He could sit beside me in the passenger seat of my car, and we could listen to bad electronic music, little girls wailing. And no wives or girlfriends, no women. Just us. Driving in circles, never ending blocks of suburban cul-de-sacs.

 

A nice dream. A nice thing that would never come to be. I feel myself laughing. And there. I thought I had killed all hope inside of me eighteen years ago, thirty years ago, forty-five years ago, at the moment of my own birth. It turns out I still had ideas. Stupid fucking ideas. I don’t cry.

 

His eyes are overflowing,


“Why?”


I wouldn’t know how to answer him. I wouldn’t even know where to start. I kneeled down beside him, feeling myself sway as well. Ready to give way to the tunnel. Trapped, surrounded on all sides by the bloodroom. By infant hearts full of holes, soldiers dying without purpose, with the idea that they had made a difference. That the world would self correct. That a new generation would know peace. Lies. A feeling of lips on the side of my mouth, soft. I felt myself, drilling into his skull. The way it would so softly dip beneath the weight of my hand, the pressure giving way to pink brain matter.

 

“Why?”


He couldn’t answer me if he tried. He looked like he was already dead. I held his fish heart in my hand, I held his cut head in my hand, and it beat for me. His blood ran clean in the water, watching itself leave.


“Lie down.”


He lowered himself to the hospital’s ground.


Why. Why. Why. I couldn’t answer him if I tried.


“Mark. Mark.”


I rained kisses on him, I unbuttoned his shirt. He stayed limp, then grabbed at me again. Grinning. I could feel his grin, I could feel his laughing. He knew just as I did. He had nowhere else to go. I could feel him holding me so tight I had trouble breathing. Warmth, like sea water, coated the side of my right cheek, where he was pressed so tight he could disappear.

 

“I hate you.”


Yeah. That was a given. Only the dead can truly hate. And Mark was now my corpse. Mine. My baby boy. Here we were. At the end. At least we were devoid now of all hope. If there is one lesson I could teach him I am glad it was this: hope is the mindkiller. Destroy it, and you will be free.

 

“Undo my fucking zipper.”


________


Jessie Lifton's work has previously appeared in Apocalypse Confidential, The Writer Magazine, and Poet’s Choice.


Jessie Lifton is on X @jessiechrxst

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