I wanted to take Speech, but they put me in Child Development, which is how I ended up doing the Guesstation Project, where we had to look at a bunch of babies in jars and try to figure out how old they were. I needed an elective, but classes filled up fast, and Robert E. Lee didn’t have much to choose from. We were sent home with permission slips, and most of the parents went for it, except for Spence Smith’s who were Mormon, and Jo Ann Barker’s mom who showed up to everything with a camcorder and a BigGulp. My mom didn’t care. The weekend I was at Dad’s, she had her friend over, some lady she knew from back in La Porte, if that tells you anything. I came home after three days to find her laid out on crutches still smashing Chardonnays, basically useless. Not that she was domestic before.
Child Development was mostly the misfits, the people who didn’t want to draw still lifes of fruit, or sing embarrassing songs, or go to the football games with Band. Lee used to offer Theater Arts until someone found out the teacher worked as a George Michael impersonator on weekends, and a bunch of parents got together and complained. They never found a replacement.
Child Development was the closest thing to Sex Ed, which we got in middle school when they split us up for an hour, guys and girls, to teach us all about abstinence. Now we were in high school and ready to handle the serious shit, like trisomy twenty-one, spina bifida, and STDs.
“Clap on, clap off…” Fisher Boyd sang out any time Mrs. Miller said “gonorrhea.”
Serena the goth girl who sat next to me because both our last names started with T said the only people who signed up for Child Development on purpose were sluts or wanna-be teachers, and that she only signed up because Speech was full.
My mom didn’t used to drink. Back when she and Dad were together, she was a leasing agent and Dad sold cars. He’d drop her off at the fancy apartment complex with the five fountains in front, and then pick her up on his way home, and for awhile everything seemed peachy. Then Dad left and Mom started drinking, and I had to learn how to make Harvey Wallbangers.
At school the mean girls in flannel shirts and brown lipstick guarded the east wing bathroom where everyone smoked cigarettes and Serena smoked beedies. You had to get past th
e mean girls to get inside and they were always on the lookout for teachers. I’d go in to pee and come out smelling like an ashtray. Serena was cool. She said her mom was a palm reader at the Renaissance Festival and that I could come by their booth any time. Then she asked me my sign to make sure we were simpatico.
Halfway through the semester Mrs.Miller pulled out the jars, six or seven of them, each with a human fetus inside. They ranged in size, from jumbo shrimp to actual baby-size—there was one with a full head of hair and everything. The jars must have been gathered at Goodwill, mismatched mason jars, and one had been used for pickles, someone pointed out, with the embossed logo right on front. The fetuses looked like they were floating in space, or like extra-terrestrial frogs frozen in various stages of metamorphosis; the biggest could have passed for one of those Real Baby dolls from when we were kids, all lidless eyes and mouth agape.
“Wet specimens,” Mrs. Miller kept calling them.
Then, she remembered Spence Smith and Jo Ann Barker, who looked like she might puke, and sent them to the library to watch She’s Having a Baby and then write a paper on it.
Fisher Boyd complained. “We get dead babies—and they get Kevin Bacon?”
Serena said Gabe Gandolfo, a junior, wanted me, that she could tell by the way he looked at my ass during lunch. She said he fingered Destinee Fox in the Reptile House during the field trip last year, which I already knew, and I said if I ever hooked up with Gabe Gandolfo, it sure as hell wouldn’t be at the zoo, and then left it at that, like I had experience.
Mom says when the right one comes along I’ll know it, like it’s the 1950s. She thinks I even haven’t been kissed yet, but I frenched two guys back in seventh grade, on the same night, both on a dare. When I asked her how she knew Dad was the one, she said she didn’t, which is why they got a divorce.
Mrs. Miller said she could get in big trouble for talking about Jesus, but that no matter what we believed, we each needed to take a moment of silence to respect the jar babies and whatever had happened that had kept them from being born.
Fisher Boyd put his finger to his throat like he was slitting it, all dramatic, his tongue peeping out like a Vienna sausage.
“They donated their entire lives to science so you could learn!” Mrs. Miller said, then, “God rest their souls,” so softly you almost couldn’t hear.
Mom talks about some dude named Rick a lot who she used to date when she lived in La Porte. She gets sad when she drinks, especially wine, and she’ll repeat all her stories about this dude Rick. Sometimes she’ll even refer to their relationship like it’s still happening, like it’s some alternate world where she’s with Rick, and Rick’s my Dad, instead of Dad being my Dad, but that’s only when she’s really drunk and between boyfriends.
No one asked Mrs. Miller, and she didn’t tell us, where the babies had come from, who they had belonged to, or how exactly they wound up in the jars, the same way no one seemed to care much about the fetal pigs in Biology the year before, besides the hippie girl who cried when Mr. Feldman sliced into one of the slick bellies and pulled out a tiny, gray heart.
Then one day someone spoke up in a small voice. “Where are the babies kept? … You know … When you’re not here?”
Mrs. Miller explained there was a special teachers’ lab that stayed locked 24-7, and before that they were kept in the district’s main science center on the other side of the city.
I hadn’t thought about the jars outside of Child Development. I hardly thought about school at all when I wasn’t at school (except for sometimes Gabe Gandolfo) but now I pictured the fetuses when it was pitch black, suspended in those jars, and it made me feel the same way I did about the pet store at the mall, all those puppies trapped inside at night, scratching the glass in the dark.
Gabe went right for it the first time we made out, digging around like a surgical probe. He and I had been talking on the phone a couple weeks before I finally said he could sneak over. When he tried to go downtown, I pulled away, hoping to be subtle—I didn’t want to seem like a prude. Then I grabbed his wrist when he kept on going. But he had come all this way. Plus, he really did like me. And we had been talking for weeks.
Mrs. Miller said not to worry if our sketches were bad. The idea was to capture the defining characteristics: facial features, torso size, limbs, extremities, etc. We wouldn’t get points taken off for our drawing skills — this wasn’t Art class! — but proper labeling, scale ratio, and accuracy of gestational age would factor into our final grade. Someone in the back asked if it was too late to transfer into Art instead, and everyone laughed.
Mrs. Miller was losing control of the class. Some of the guys started calling the big fetus “Fred” (which we decided was around thirty-four weeks because of the hair), as in Drop Dead Fred which had just come out, and also Right Said Fred because of that song: ‘I’m too sexy for my shirt.’
“Is that amniotic fluid inside those jars?”
Fisher Boyd was trying to score points for paying attention, but we were told it was formaldehyde, the same stuff they used to preserve the pigs the year before that had stunk up Mr. Feldman’s Biology lab. Then Mrs. Miller heard someone call the fetus “Fred” and she just about lost it. There wasn’t anything funny about the Guesstation Project, she said. The work we were doing was important.
I think she needed to believe that.
Mom eventually got a new boyfriend who lured her out of the house again. Turns out being injured worked in her favor, as far as sympathy goes, because this one guy started coming around, wooing her with trips to The Cheesecake Factory and she couldn’t resist. I wondered if she actually believed there was a One, like she always said, and if she had missed the boat with Rick, why she kept trying for a Two.
Gabe snuck over a few more times and I thought things were really going somewhere. I even gave him a hand job just to make sure, but then he stopped talking to me like nothing ever happened. Serena said it was because I acted too easy and he got what he wanted. When I explained I tried to be difficult, she looked skeptical. Then she said it must have been because I was a Virgo and he was a Leo. Fate.
It was toward the end of the project when one of the jars got knocked over. There was a crash during the lab, and Mrs. Miller let out a little cry, and then the whole room fell dead silent. Fred was laid out on the floor, soaking wet, broken glass everywhere, his hairy head cocked at a weird angle from the way he had landed, his sad fish eyes swimming in disappointment. Before anyone could make a move, Fisher Boyd reached over and scooped up the fetus like a football. Then he stood it up on his crotch and started thrusting.
“Check out my wet specimen,” he said, in a creepy voice, rocking his hips back and forth while the fetus’s head bobbed around.
A line had been crossed. Even dumb Fisher Boyd could sense it, the way he stopped mid-thrust and stood there while nobody laughed. Fred’s head settled to one side. Mrs. Miller’s head turned red and splotchy. Then, as if taken over by some animal urge, she lunged at Fisher Boyd, and grabbed the fetus out of his hands, and held it close to her, cradling it in her arms.
After a minute, she cleared her throat. Instead of the final exam, she said, she would grade our sketches—as is!—and there wouldn’t be a way to earn extra credit. Someone tried to sweep up the glass, but she yelled at them, and then sent us all to the library to sit out the period, except for Fisher Boyd who got sent to the office, and then to In-School Suspension where he spent the rest of the semester. When we left the room, Mrs. Miller was still holding on to Fred, bent over the mess, like she was looking for something she knew she wouldn’t find.
The next day, when Mrs. Miller introduced the new unit, no one made a dick joke. Then she went on to describe the final, the Baby Simulation Project, where we would have to carry around a hard-boiled egg for a week and make sure it didn’t crack. The jars on her desk were gone, replaced by two, crisp styrofoam cartons. We waited, wary, while she made her way around the room, carefully handing an egg to each student, daring us to break them.