Authors: Avery Corman
Kramer vs. Kramer
For my mother
E DID NOT EXPECT
to see blood. He was not prepared for this, neither the books nor the instructor had mentioned bleeding or the brown stains on the sheets. He had been alerted to pain and he was prepared to help her overcome that.
“I’m here, honey. Come on, do your breathing now,” he urged as he was supposed to, the good soldier.
“One, two, three, blow …”
“Fuck you!” she said.
He wanted to be the natural childbirth team member he had taken the course to be, the helpmate without whom none of it would be possible, but by the time they let him into the room, they had started without him. Joanna moaned random “sonofabitch”s, while in the next bed, a woman was screaming in Spanish for her mother and for God, neither of whom appeared to be at hand.
“We’ll do the breathing together,” he said cheerily.
He was superfluous. Joanna closed her eyes to swim in the pain, and the nurse pushed him to the side so she could wipe up the blood and the shit.
HEN JOANNA FIRST PRESENTED
her belly for him to listen to “it,” he said it was a miracle. He said this automatically. The first signs of life had not really interested him. She was the one who had initiated the idea of having a baby, and he had agreed to this as the next logical step in the marriage. When she became pregnant only a month after removing her coil, he was astonished. It seemed to have little to do with him—her idea, her baby, her miracle.
He knew he was supposed to feel connected to the chemical changes within her. What interested him most about her new body was not the life within it, but the pressure of her belly against his genital area during sex. He began to fantasize what sex must be like with obese women, staring at them on the street, wondering if the gracefulness so many obese women exhibit is desperate self-delusion or the secret knowledge of indescribable sexual pleasures given and received. Ted Kramer, who never permitted himself to linger over the pictures in the lobby of the porno movie house near his office, amused himself by wondering about the financial possibilities of a porno movie,
Ted and the Fat Lady.
Joanna began to stain severely in her sixth month. Her gynecologist, Dr. Anthony Fisk, who had been identified in
magazine as one of the most successful, eligible young gynecologists in the Western world, prescribed to Joanna, “Rest in bed and put the cork in.” A discussion followed between Ted and Joanna as to the precise medical meaning of his advice. He placed a late-night, precoital call to Dr. Fisk, who was irritated at the nonemergency nature of the inquiry and none too pleased to talk to a man, least of all about semantics. He said that his meaning medically was “Keep her on her ass as much as possible and no more shtupping.” Ted suggested they change doctors, but Joanna was adamant, so they departed for distant sides of the bed, where Joanna remained for the better part of three months, successfully reaching the full term of her pregnancy.
Joanna did not express interest in substitute lovemaking during this period, even though Ted quoted from one of the childbirth books in which variations on intercourse were officially sanctioned. “Intercourse between the thighs may prove to be an adequate, temporary solution.”
One night, after she had fallen asleep, Ted attempted to masturbate in their bathroom to the fantasy of a fat woman he had seen that day in the subway. He switched before orgasm to a fantasy of Joanna herself so as not to cheat on her. Feeling guilty anyway about his indiscretion, he sublimated his desires thereafter by throwing himself into the growing obsession in the house over clothing, mattresses, cribs, mobiles, night lights, carriages, and names for the baby.
Joanna’s attention to detail on such as the comparative merits of high chairs with beads for baby to spin and those without far exceeded his, and he ascribed it to the naturalness of motherhood that she, who had never been here before, had so quickly acquired the jargon of the trade. He had difficulty distinguishing between
sounded as though the baby should lay in it, rather than be the baby’s clothes, while
sounded like something the baby should bathe in, rather than lay on, whereas
were easier for him to identify—they went around the crib and had visual educational material on them, like bunnies.
Lady Madonna was the store where Joanna bought her maternity clothes, a name that seemed apt to him, since she had satisfied every notion of the beautiful mother-to-be. Her skin was radiant, her eyes were bright, a madonna and chaste, thanks to the wisdom of Dr. Fisk. Joanna Kramer was nearly professional in her looks, too slight at five-three to be taken for a model, possibly an actress, a striking, slender woman with long, black hair, a thin, elegant nose, large brown eyes, and somewhat chesty for her frame. “The prettiest girl around,” Ted called her. His image of himself was less secure. A reasonably attractive man of five-ten with brown eyes and light-brown hair, he was self-conscious about his nose, which he felt was too long, and his hair, which had begun to thin. An indication of his self-image was that he felt most attractive when Joanna was on his arm. His hope was that the child would not, by some unfortunate irony, have his looks.
He was solicitous during the pregnancy, he wanted to bring her spareribs late at night, run out for ice cream, but she had none of these clichéd whims, so he often brought her flowers instead, which before this he would have considered excessively romantic.
Joanna slept peacefully for a woman now in her seventh month. His nights were difficult as he moved in and out of wakefulness, a vague disturbance flickering just beyond his reach.
EN COUPLES ASSEMBLED IN
a Greenwich Village brownstone. The promise of the instructor was that the women could have control over their bodies, which was greeted solemnly, no one noting the contradiction of ten bulging women, some of whom were having difficulty walking, having control over their bodies. The men, for their part, were promised they could be active participants in the birth of their own children. The instructor was an enthusiastic young woman in leotards, the only flat-bellied woman in sight and when Ted, in the middle of a discussion about the placenta, began having sexual fantasies about her and her flat belly, he took it as a sign that his period of fat-lady sexual deviation had ended.
His dream belly then introduced into the proceedings a series of shocks to Ted’s system. They were color slides she projected onto a screen which showed the most graphic depiction he had seen yet of the development of the fetus, followed by pictures of new babies, awake mothers, beaming fathers. A real baby was coming, not a baby in a book or hidden within her belly, a breathing person, in his life.
The following day at lunchtime, while sitting on the steps of the 42nd Street Library eating an ice-cream pop, after having priced the birth announcements at Lord & Taylor and before rechecking the prices on cribs at Saks, the realization came to him, the flickering in the distance took shape. It was fear. He was scared. He was scared Joanna would die. He was scared the baby would die. He was scared Joanna and the baby both would die. He was scared that they would be all right, but later he would die. He was scared about being able to afford the baby. He was scared about holding the baby, scared about dropping the baby. He was scared of the baby being born blind, retarded, crippled, with one arm, or one leg, with missing fingers, splotched skin. He was scared that he would be found wanting, scared that he would not be a good father. He told Joanna none of this.
HE MECHANISM HE CHOSE
for dealing with his fear was to obliterate it. He would be Godlike, control everything, leave nothing to ignorance or chance. He would be the best-trained, best-informed natural childbirth father anywhere. In the weekly classes, he was focused and intense. He could practically scan Joanna’s middle with X-ray eyes like Superman and see the position of the baby. When Joanna began to experience increasing discomfort in her ninth month, he was extremely supportive. They practiced the breathing exercises daily at his encouragement. He was a model pre-daddy.
At the end of the natural childbirth course there was a motion picture shown in a local school of an actual birth by natural childbirth methods. In the audience were all types of expectant fathers and bellies of various possible shapes. He felt a kinship with these people, smiling at strangers. The film ended. The course was completed. Ted Kramer was ready to have the baby.
ILL YOU BE DISAPPOINTED
in me if I don’t succeed?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I was talking to somebody who had to be put out, and she feels guilty that she wasn’t awake for it.”
“There are no failures, like they said. Don’t worry about that, darling. You take it as far as you can.”
Just don’t die on me, Joanna. I couldn’t bear to lose you—which he could not say aloud. He did not want to frighten her, or bring his own fears to the surface.
HEN THE CALL CAME,
he was at his desk in the office, right where he was supposed to be, a ten-minute cab ride from the house, in control. It began to slip away from him at the start. He had not counted on the speed and the severity of Joanna’s labor, and he reached the house to find her doubled up on the floor.
“It’s bad, Ted—”
All the training suddenly went out of his head as he saw the extent of her pain. He held her until the contraction had passed. Then he took the bag which had been packed for days—he had kept his cab waiting—and they were on their way to the hospital.
“I can’t stand it.”
“You’ll be okay, darling. Breathe.”
“You can do it. Please, breathe!” And she made an attempt at the breathing rhythms, which were supposed to deprogram the brain away from pain.
“Darling, you’ve got to try to get on top of it next time. Remember. On top.”
“Maybe they should just put me out.”
At 79th Street and Park Avenue the cab was stopped by a traffic jam.
“We can’t have this!” he shouted at the cabdriver.
“What can I do, mister?”
Ted leaped out of the cab.
“Emergency! Woman in labor! Emergency!”
He raced out in the middle of traffic, holding cars up, directing others, an instant, crazed traffic cop. “Move that truck, goddammit. Let’s break this up.” Hardened New York City drivers bewildered by the sight of this maniac responded. In a moment of grandeur, he was a heroic figure rescuing his pregnant wife from a New York traffic jam. They sped to the hospital, the driver leaning on his horn at Ted’s admonition—“Go through the lights. I’ll pay the fines.”
His moment was over, having lasted but a moment. When they reached the hospital, Joanna was taken upstairs, and he was alone in the reception room waiting, yesterday’s hero.
were in control now, and they had her and were shaving her pubic hair away.
“This is unfair,” he protested to the receptionist. “I’m needed upstairs with my wife.”
“They’ll call down.”
“It takes about twenty minutes, Mr. Kramer.”
“These minutes are crucial.”
“Yes, we know.”
In the reception room was a beefy man in his thirties, who lounged in a chair with the calm of someone watching television.
“First time?” he said to Ted.