Wayne and Warren Rutledge were born nine and a half minutes apart in an inflatable kiddie pool in the living room above the Lucky China Buffet round about midnight.
Ava Rutledge writhed and moaned in the pink-tinged water, her blue eyes defocused on a point on the far wall while her hands, as though acting under the direction of a disinterested third party, continued massaging her mountainous belly.
It appeared to Long Chen, the owner of the restaurant below and Ava’s lover, that she was under a spell, blind and deaf to the soothing encouragement of the middle-aged doula who massaged the mother-to-be’s shoulders and back and reminded her to breathe.
Long Chen had never attended a birth before, had not even witnessed the family cat giving birth to a litter of kittens when he was a small boy, but he was fairly certain Ava did not need to be told to keep breathing.
The woman mimicked the breathing exercises Ava performed in order to get through each progressive contraction. Long Chen worried if the woman was inhaling too much oxygen from the room and exhaling too much carbon dioxide too close to Ava’s face.
To distract himself from these thoughts that he feared were growing unhinged, he began to pace in the space from the living room to the kitchen.
He ignored the doula’s entreaties to participate in the births. He knew it was a sign of weakness, but he didn’t want to see the blood. Or anything else. He could not even bring himself to say the word placenta in his head.
He lit another cigarette and paced the bare floorboards. The floorboards that led to the couch upon which he and Ava had made love. The floorboards that led to the bedroom where he and Ava had made love. The floorboards that led — Long Chen stopped pacing and growled, angry with himself for having fallen under the heady spell of Ava Rutledge. He tugged at tufts of his short-cropped black hair and would have gladly yanked out every strand from his head if it would make this all disappear.
Ava had known for months she was carrying twins. “Boys,” she had assured Long Chen after her third sonogram, thinking perhaps he had brought from China the traditional fear of having girl babies and that was what was keeping him from being happy about the pregnancy. But even that news did not bring a smile to the man’s face. And who could blame him? His Chinese-born wife, of whom he had not shared any knowledge with Ava, would soon be arriving in America to move into this very apartment, accompanied by her parents.
Long Chen’s shoulders slumped more as he remembered the sour expressions his in-laws had worn when he asked their permission to marry their only daughter. And that was even before he explained that he would leave his young wife behind to go on ahead to America and would send for her, and them, when he could afford to. That news had only deepened the creases of disappointment in their faces. It was less than two years ago, and Long Chen’s hard work had made his Lucky China Buffet a success, and his bride and her parents were due to arrive next month.
The prospect of having to confess his year-long affair with this blond, who was at this very moment giving birth to his twins, made the man’s stomach twist into knots. His pacing grew more frantic as each contraction brought his sons that much closer to delivery.
How could he bring such shame on the family? What a living hell it would be under the same roof with in-laws who already showed such disdain for him. He paused to light another cigarette, ignoring the coughing admonitions from the doula kneeling behind Ava, massaging her back and offering encouragement.
Ava’s well-rehearsed natural childbirth breathing methods got her through each successive contraction as her labor progressed. When Wayne arrived, squalling and arms flailing, the doula wrapped him snugly in a soft cloth and held him out for Ava to see.
But Ava failed to even glimpse at her first born. She had to remain focused on getting the second baby out. There would be plenty of time later to fawn and fuss over them. She wanted Long Chen to see how brave she was. That she wasn’t a shrieking, out-of-control American who demanded painkillers.
She was determined to do this with dignity and grace, the way she imagined Chinese women did it. She’d heard that some Chinese peasants simply squatted and gave birth in the rice paddies like it was nothing.
The doula held the baby out for Long Chen to see. He didn’t want to. He gripped the doorframe to keep his jellied legs from giving out altogether.
“Look!” the doula said sharply and jerked the tidy bundle up at him from her position on the floor. Long Chen turned his face slowly and looked. He cocked his head and blinked.
Ava was oblivious to the looks her birthing coach and Long Chen exchanged. Oblivious to the cessation of his pacing, to the hesitant but definite smile that creased his lips. He no longer tugged at his hair. He ground out his cigarette and dumped the contents of the overflowing ashtray in the toilet. He opened every window in the apartment above the Lucky China Buffet, no longer caring if a neighbor heard the cries or whimpers of newborn babies.
Nine and a half minutes later Warren Rutledge arrived just as silently as his mother’s final push, her blue eyes transfixed on the fluttering red tassels of the complimentary Lucky China Buffet calendar hanging beside the fridge.
Beneath the cheesy white film and splotches of blood Long Chen could not find the slightest hint of Asian parentage in either blue-eyed, blond-haired infant. And so Long Chen downed a half bottle of 80-proof baiju and danced a little jig. Or so the story goes.
Mary Vettel is an East End resident. The author of several novels, as well as a novella that was adapted into a play produced at Guild Hall’s Black Box Naked Stage in Bridgehampton in 2010, she is at present at work on a young-adult medieval fantasy.